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Arts & Culture

Richmond is a city with over 100 street murals, 162 organizations in the arts, culture & humanities sector, and a thriving arts & culture scene. The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement has maintained relationships with arts & culture non-profits and programs that connect communities to creative expression.

Jennie Baker
Jennie Baker
Major: English

 

I’ve been an intern at ART180 for nearly four years. I’ve spent quite some time assisting at a few of their many art programs at Richmond/Henrico public schools. ART180 strives to give Richmond youth living in challenging circumstances the opportunity to creatively express themselves through art. Throughout my time at these programs, I’ve been able to witness first-hand the incredible emotional impact participating in an ART180 program can have on the youth.

I’d like to talk about a specific student I worked with named Ariana. During my time assisting a program at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, I worked a lot with Ariana. Towards the beginning of our program, she would come into the classroom often in a bad mood. She consistently expressed frustration with her teachers, claiming it seemed like they almost wanted her to be in trouble. She felt they went out of their way to yell at her, shame her, and isolate her as a ‘bad’ student. She believed her own school, the place where her education should be of the utmost importance, consistently attacked her. She never felt comfortable, always in defense mode when she entered our program, waiting for what she perceived was inevitable reprimanding.

Initially, I thought Ariana was just a student who did not like to follow the rules and enjoyed being rebellious. But with time and greater knowledge regarding her circumstances, I’ve realized that’s far from the case. From my experience in my Justice and Civil Society course at the university, I learned of the frequent over discipline of minority students at schools across the nation. Specifically in 2014, “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students” (US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2014). Ariana saw herself as a target, and the statistics supported her suspicions. It’s the over punishment that Ariana faced which made her defensive and even at times hostile.

This made me reflect on the lasting impact this discrimination can have on these children. Even if Ariana is never suspended or worse, she holds a lasting impression that her wellbeing and academic success are of little importance to her educators. That she herself remains unvalued and a ‘problem’. How can someone be motived in the classroom by that? How can they feel safe? How can they feel valued and loved? It is the over discipline that Ariana faced that made her walk into a peaceful art program and not trust the adults in the room. After becoming educated on the oppression Ariana was so often forced to endure, I felt better equipped to help her feel more comfortable and freer in the safe space ART180 provides.

I realized that giving Ariana space to express herself creatively and encouraging her to enjoy the projects we worked on was just what she needed. She craved independence to be herself and confident and freedom from the constant criticism she often faced in school. I noticed her demeanor change each time she entered the classroom. While she still had some stressful days, Ariana started to enjoy our program more and more. She even reached the point of asking to create some extra pieces. I often left her to appreciate the blissful solitude she chose to pursue when she produced her works of art, but I still watched how she worked. I would frequently see her transfixed to whatever project she was working on, forgetting the world around her so that she could feel as comfortable as possible expressing herself in the safe space ART180 facilitates.

I worked with Ariana for about a year, watching her grow as a person and develop her artistic abilities with every piece she made. I saw her silent appreciation of ART180 through the extensive effort she put into her work. It showed me how much she valued her time at our programs. In ART180’s 2018 annual report of the 504 youth ART180 served, “95% reported a sense of belonging/connectedness with ART180 programs” (ART180 2019). In this way, statistics finally worked in Ariana’s favor.

From my experience with Ariana, I learned the impact my civic engagement can have on others at the individual level. I would have never thought a twice weekly art program could have such an influence on someone’s behavior and disposition. I walked out of the program knowing a much calmer and happier Ariana, and she is just one of the hundreds of youth that ART180 serves a year. I value the donors and staff of ART180 that facilitate my civic engagement and have enabled me to have such an incredible learning experience with the Richmond community. These are the same people that give Ariana a space in which she can be free from her issues from home or school. I’ve learned from them the significance of being an active member in my community, and how much can change when we collaborate as individuals who care about the wellbeing of those around us.

Ariana has motivated me to continue to learn and explore the communities I’m a part of. I hope to continue my engagement with the community post-graduation, whether that be volunteering at a local animal shelter or participating in some form of activism. I feel empowered thanks to the Bonner center because I’ve learned the impact I and anyone else is capable of having.  

References 

Annual Report 2018, ART180, 2019. 

United States, Congress, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” Data Snapshot: School Discipline, 2014, p. 1.

Sara Messervey
Sara Messervey

 

Sara Messervey
Major: Leadership Studies

 

My Bonner journey began as a compassionate idealist. I dedicated myself to service because it appealed to my sense of self-worth, rather than that of personal responsibility--and I assumed that most people would be motivated to participate in service with similar, self-affirming motivations. All notions of noble volunteerism were abandoned, however, when I discovered a drastic need for activism and change less than two months into my first semester at the University of Richmond. In the wake of two severe Title IX sexual assault cases that were willfully mishandled by administrators looking to protect both the offender and university’s reputation, a forum coalesced for students to respond to the crisis on campus--a forum that I attended with dispassionate intentions to meet my Bonner hours for my first cycle requirement. This forum forever altered my life path and relationship with service, and just as Bonner was responsible for my discovery of this pervasive issue of campus sexual assault, so was it responsible for pushing me to grow and improve in leading the movement to tackle this crisis.

One of my first essential takeaways from Bonner was the importance of inclusive community in chage-making work. Our group reflections have encouraged us time and again to think more broadly about the communities we are serving. Wealth and resource inequality don’t occur in vacuum--they are the result of systemic barriers with broad impact across larger communities. And as the Bonner program and its Justice and Civil Society course have repeatedly taught us, tackling this systemic inequality requires community effort. Bonner itself was built upon this premise, employing a community of students dedicated to service to promote and positively impact the city of Richmond. Community is what propelled the UR students’ grass roots sexual assault prevention campaign to successfully affect sweeping changes to UR Title IX policy and to become a formal student organization: the Spiders Against Sexual Assault & Violence (SASAV). As the co-founder and ongoing President of SASAV, I am hyperaware of how much my organization did and continues to rely on community involvement and support. Moreover, my knowledge of the importance of inclusive community is what later helped me to recognize what SASAV was lacking. As a predominantly White ciswomen organization following the graduation of many of our original members, we lacked a representative and inclusive community of stakeholders--a failing that prompted me to actively recruit a more diverse body of membership and leaders through partnerships with other campus stakeholders like the Black Student Alliance, Solidarity Organization for Latinx Students, LGBTQ+ Coalition and Shades of Pride. These efforts will strengthen SASAV’s collective knowledge and initiatives to better address the needs of all UR students, and reflect the value of inclusive communities central to the Bonner program.

Another critical change-making skill developed through Bonner in line with community-building is that of intentional communication; a skill necessary for the acquisition of essential resources. For many non-partisan initiatives, it’s as easy as asking. I learned this through my first Bonner summer internship at my county’s Department of Children’s Behavioral Health, when I was tasked with developing our summer programming. By calling local businesses on behalf of the kids our program served, I was able to convince dozens of them to offer free or heavily discounted experiences that fit into our budget. My original Bonner site, the Greater Richmond SCAN Child Advocacy Center, similarly had a wealth of donors, as an organization dedicated to child abuse prevention. Other organizations that tackle more controversial issues, like sexual assault prevention advocacy, often struggle to receive necessary resources as a result. In SASAV’s original requests for funding and formal recognition as an organization, the university proved very resistant, primarily because our requests were paired with (justifiable) hostility. This confrontational presentation often provoked resistance on the university’s end, which inevitably slowed our progress. However, when I began working as a grants writer at my second Bonner site, Oakwood Arts, I learned the importance of incentivizing powerholders (donors) to grant resources to more partisan issues, like the non-profit’s racial equity-building initiatives. This knowledge, in turn, is what helped me to reshape SASAV communications with UR administrators to become less confrontational and more cooperative by nature. Though it’s been physically painful at times to kiss up to the institution that routinely fails to support survivors or hold perpetrators accountable for its own reputational gain, it is this communication strategy that has helped us to generate $4,500 for the next academic year. These funds will go a long way in our mission to create a safer campus, and that success is thanks in part to my lessons from Bonner.

While arming me with more effective community-building and advocacy skills, Bonner ironically taught me an invaluable lesson: volunteerism is unethical under capitalism. Through continuous reflections on the importance of service paired with reminders of stark, systemic inequality, I learned to recognize a disturbing contradiction: While we praise service as a noble sacrifice made by selfless and compassionate people, we are not only justifying the displacement of necessary work aimed at reducing the harms of capitalism onto unpaid labor, but also praising those privileged enough to allocate the necessary time and resources as “saviors” of communities disenfranchised by the same system these volunteers benefit from. Simply put, when the work isn’t done--it harms vulnerable communities, or else displaces unpaid labor onto those who rely on the services, but can’t afford to do it themselves. Then, when those who benefit from inequality donate time they can subsequently afford to apolitical volunteer work, they are praised for their valiant service to the “underserved,” with the implication that those communities couldn’t “help” themselves if the resources were available. The recognition that volunteer work isn’t always accessible defines the Bonner program’s formation; a program that funds volunteer work for service organizations that rely on but can’t afford to pay for the labor. However, the program’s frequent praise of our “service” denies how much we owe our privilege to the communities harmed to maintain that privilege. With this realization came another: that the work that SASAV does is labor that our university owes us, but refuses to do on its own, and is thus displaced onto students who could otherwise be using that time for paid labor. This awareness, derived from the Bonner program, pushed me to successfully apply for university funding to create a paid part-time position within the organization to compensate for the hours of labor necessary for SASAV’s survival.

Bonner has taught me invaluable lessons and skills over my last four years of experience, education and reflection through this program. Thanks to Bonner, I have become a more powerful and self-directed changemaker, with the skills and knowledge to promote inclusivity in community, effectively advocate for funding and resources to power-holding donors and institutions, and recognize and alleviate burdens of “service” under capitalism. With this program’s end comes a new beginning for me in my future as an activist and advocate. By guiding me to that sexual assault forum at the start of my freshman year, Bonner has set me on a lifelong path to being a driver of positive change in my communities, wherever they may be, and

I am forever grateful to this program for empowering and inspiring me to become the best possible activist and version of myself that I can be.