Art Activism: A Creative Countermeasure to Systemic Racism

Karyn Ross

When I was in art school, people often asked me why I was studying art. They'd say, “Karyn, isn't it a waste of time? What's the point? Making art doesn't have a ‘purpose' and art doesn't ‘do anything', so why would you spend time on it?”

And I always answered the same way, “I'm studying art, and I'm an artist because art – and artists – can change the world for the better.

Forty years later, I still believe this.

And if you are not sure how art can change the world for the better, here is a short explanation: As part of the artistic process, artists reflect on what they see and understand about what is going on in the world. Then they use their imagination to ‘create' a vision of what the future can be.

When a piece of art is created, whether it's a drawing, sculpture, dance, piece of music or Black Lives Matter mural painted on the street, artists provide a way to ‘make visible' what is going on in people's thinking and in the systemic thinking of broader society. So, today, as we actively seek countermeasures to systemic racism, art, artists, and ‘art activism' are all unbelievably important.

As is kindness.

Because, when you think about it, one of the ‘root causes' of systemic racism is a basic failure of kindness. If we all simply followed the golden rule, and treated others like we want to be treated ourselves – thinking, speaking and acting kindly to all – we would not have systemic racism (or many of the other systemic problems we face globally).

So how can we combine creativity, kindness and the artistic process to create countermeasures to systemic racism? Here are a couple of examples:

In 1999, the school my daughter attended in Toronto was in a predominantly black neighborhood. My daughter was one of the few white children in the school, and the majority of the school's population came from lower income families living in public housing.

As part of Year 2000 celebrations, each school was supposed to do a creative project. I volunteered to help the school create a ‘Millennium Mural.' First, each of the children drew their vision of the future – what they hoped and dreamed the world – and their lives could be like. Then I helped the fifth-grade students organize and manage the mural painting project. Every child in the school participated in painting the mural, which spanned the entire length of the main school hallway.

When the mural was complete, we had a huge celebration! The ‘student artists' were interviewed for newspaper articles that were written. The pride they showed in their accomplishments and in their vision for a brighter future and a better world was evident!

Last year, when I visited Toronto before the pandemic started, I stopped by the school. The mural still graces the main hallway and has been designated a ‘cultural treasure.' If the school is ever torn down, the mural, along with its memories, hopes and dreams, will be preserved as part of the school board's heritage. Art activism in action, just like today's murals of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

In November 2016, bothered by the increasing unkindness I saw in the world, I decided I had to do something. As a person, and as an artist.

So, I created a button, with a green background and a red heart in the middle. Then I printed out small slips of paper that read “Plant Kindness – Grow Love” and started leaving the buttons anonymously in places.

Karyn Rosee Plant Kindness Grow Love

After a while, I started giving them to people that I saw being kind. If someone dropped something and another person picked it up, I went over the person, thanked them for kindness, and gave them a button.

Four years later, The Love and Kindness Project Foundation (yes…that one tiny button turned into a whole Foundation!) has given out over 13,000 ‘Love and Kindness Buttons' as they are now called, all over the world. Art activism on a larger scale!

All this is great, you may be saying. But I'm not an artist. What can I do? Good thing is we don't have to identify as ‘artist' to be art activists! Here's a couple of easy ideas for you to start with:

  1. Put together a group of diverse family and friends and spend time ‘drawing' what a world without system racism looks like to you! Post your drawings on social media and in your windows!
  2. Make simple ‘stickers' with anti-racism and kind messages out of heavy paper and tape! Wear them and hand them out!

When we combine art, kindness and creativity into art activism, we have an unbelievable countermeasure to root causes of systemic racism and other failures of kindness.

As human beings we are all innately creative. And we can all choose to be active creators of a better, kinder world – a world without systemic racism – through art activism!

What will you create today?

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  1. Sabrina says

    Karyn Ross, Thanks for this wonderful inspiration, for your kindness and for spreading it!

  2. Jeff Welch says

    What a creative way to address a serious problem! I so agree with you when it comes to the arts. I had a huge debate not long ago with someone who suggested that music (and other arts) classes should be taken out of public schools. I studied music all throughout my school years. Being in band and learning to read music helped me with social and interpersonal skills, as well as my math and reading skills. So the arts are indeed important! I also think it’s a smart idea to use the arts to teach love, compassion, and understanding to children. Kudos to you and the elementary school in Toronto for teaching the young ones to live in a world where we are all respected and treated equally!

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