One thing I want to do, is to open people’s minds to see the types of things they can do, that there is a whole spectrum when it comes to activism.
When administrators at Bridgewater State University asked a group of students what they thought about activism, the responses were eye-opening.
“What we learned was they saw it as something that they can do when they are older, when they have more experience,” said Jill Beckwith, executive director of the Martin Richard Institute for Social Justice (MRISJ). “They linked activism to high level events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement...very few students could identify things they can do in their daily lives that can make a difference.”
The feedback made an impression on Beckwith, and as executive director of the Institute for Social Justice, she hopes she can change that way of thinking.
“One thing I want to do, is to open people’s minds to see the types of things they can do, that there is a whole spectrum when it comes to activism,” she said.
For example, an outlet that students may not think of when it comes to making a difference is through art, Beckwith said.
The Institute for Social Justice recently invited artist and activist Robert Shetterly to show how art can be used to forward social justice.
Shetterly, who lives in Maine, has painted more than 250 portraits of everyday Americans who have made a difference in their respective communities in the areas of racial equity, climate justice, and indigenous rights.
“So often people think of art as purely decorative, but art has always been the thin edge of societal change...portraying things through art that are sometimes uncomfortable or inconvenient truths, can often open up conversations and get people talking,” said Jay Block, BSU’s assistant director of collections and exhibitions.
Block collaborated with MRISJ to bring Shetterly’s artwork to campus, where 12 of the artist’s portraits will be on display in the Maxwell library through Oct. 2.
“His portraits reflect every race, religion, and creed...the uniting factor is that each of them all took a stand for some sort of justice. The portraits show that people can make a difference. Through one, small act from just one-person, amazing things can happen,” Block said.
Each portrait has a QR code for visitors to scan and learn more about what actions each activist has taken, what issues they tackled. Beckwith hopes students will be able to see a piece of themselves in the diversity of stories offered.
“I hope it gets them to think about how they can make changes within their own lives and see that there are a variety of things you can do to improve our communities,” she said.
More than 150 students also got to meet Shetterly when he came to visit campus on Sept. 21. He spoke to three different classes about his own activism and portraits. Later that night, his documentary, “Truth Tellers,” which takes a deeper dive into his work as an activist and artist, was shown.
Beckwith hopes Shetterly’s visit and Maxwell exhibit together will lead students and members of the BSU community to find their own comfort level when it comes to activism.
She said the MRISJ is a great starting place for those looking for ideas.
“We offer an array of service opportunities throughout the year,” Beckwith said. “I encourage students to identify one small step they can take...my guess is that momentum will build. Baby steps always lead to bigger steps.”
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