What do social justice and making quilts have in common? Well, they're both core tenets of Social Justice Sewing Academy. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2016 by Sara Trail when she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Four years prior, Trail had been shaken by the murder of young Trayvon Martin, an event with even more gravity given that Martin was exactly two weeks older than Trail before he was killed. However, Trail found that when she tried to talk about the event in her sewing circles, she was largely ignored. Instead of showing empathy, her fellow sewers largely disregarded her own experiences facing intolerance and prejudice.
A passionate sewer since age four, Trail decided to bridge the gap between the injustices in the world around her and the craft she loved. After completing her Master’s degree at the Harvard School of Education, Trail established Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) as a way to engage and educate youth and communities at large through art. SJSA works with youth between the ages of 13 and 20 to teach sewing while also fostering discussions about social justice issues.
To attract students to its workshops, SJSA markets through social media and word-of-mouth networking as well as connections to schools. In this way, the organization is able to connect with youth who may not otherwise have an interest in or access to the resources needed to learn how to sew.
Workshops typically run about two and a half hours and are attended by between 15 and 25 young people. Each one begins with a facilitator who leads a 25 minute lesson on social justice issues, often incorporating games into the lesson as they discuss topics like identity, power, and how to speak up for causes like the Black Lives Matter movement. The lessons are tailored to the specific age demographic of the participants.
After the lesson, discussion continues as the youth brainstorm how to translate their knowledge, ideas, and opinions into art. The workshop facilitator works with the students to develop their ideas into something that can be represented on fabric. Then, the students get to work, choosing fabrics and creating their quilt squares. While the students are cutting fabric, sewing, and gluing, volunteers are present to engage in further social justice discussions with the students while also being available to assist them as they learn and develop their sewing skills.
SJSA is a purposefully intergenerational organization, working to allow people of different ages to learn from each other while sharing their love of sewing. As SJSA Outreach Coordinator Stephanie Valencia tells House Beautiful, “I would describe the typical sewing community as white, middle aged affluent women.” That's part of what makes SJSA unique: “It's an expensive time involved craft that only truly affluent people generally tend to have the time and energy to devote themselves to," says Valencia. "So SJSA is definitely very different in bringing in disadvantaged youth.”
Through its workshops, SJSA is able to bring together a group of people who can benefit from each other. The young people involved in the workshops are able to learn a new craft and engage in discussions of critical issues, while volunteers are present for discussions of issues they may not otherwise be faced with or think about on their own.
For Valencia, one of the most positive and surprising aspects of working with SJSA has been the passion of the volunteers who devote their time and skills to this work. “Everyone is so selfless within the organization and genuinely cares about moving forward into the future,” she says. “And the self-sacrificing that has to come from the multiple hours...We have one volunteer, an embroidery artist who does four blocks a month for us…[each] takes probably 10 to 15 hours.”
However, the organization isn't free of challenges. According to Valencia, backlash in response to the social justice inspired quilts created by SJSA workshop participants has been consistent. The main grievances with some members of the quilting community are that the quilts are too political and that they are pressing a Black agenda when they say phrases like “erase injustice.”
Another obstacle that SJSA has been facing since March is, of course, how to run and facilitate workshops during a pandemic. The organization has been able to create some sewing packets with necessary materials and send them to students who can then participate in workshops over Zoom, but this method is too costly to be sustainable. In lieu of its normal programming, SJSA is presently encouraging participation in their Remembrance Project, which aims to memorialize people who have lost their lives due to senseless violence.
In the future, SJSA aims to be integrated as a social justice curriculum in schools nationwide, so that on a larger scale, art can continue to be used as a means from which to learn.
In its four years of existence, SJSA has already succeeded in creating spaces for education, reflection, and solace among the students who have participated in its workshops, as well as those who have volunteered their time to support them. "They're able to tell their story and know that...other people are going to hear and find out what they're experiencing,” says Valencia of the students. “I know that two and a half hours seems like it's not going to be enough time to be a touching event. However, youth being able to tell their story no matter how long the time frame, it changes them, it gives them power.”
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