Artists and activists highlighted the role of creative expression in telling stories and fostering empathy at a webinar Monday hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard University Common Spaces.
The artist evrYwhr set the tone of the event with a recording of his song “Letter to the White House,” which lays out his vision for national unity. The discussion which followed — moderated by HGSE Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Tracie D. Jones —featured actor and singer Dyllón Burnside, chief executive officer of Pathways to Creative Industries Joiselle Cunningham, and hip-hop dancer and HGSE lecturer Aysha Upchurch.
Panelists agreed that art deepens people’s understanding of themselves and each other. Through their work, Burnside said artists can encourage people to pursue meaningful change.
“I think it starts with the self,” Burnside said. “It starts with understanding who we are as individuals, and what we bring to the table. And as we engage with the world and have different realizations, how do we share that with folks in a way that allows them to connect to their humanity in a way that creates change?”
Upchurch said dance can empower members of historically discriminated groups, specifically Black women, to “reclaim and rightfully write the narratives around our bodies, our moving bodies, our still bodies.”
“I don’t consider myself an activist,” Upchurch added. “But I do understand that my work sits in advocacy, it sits in helping folks understand their own voice.”
Cunningham said her organization, Pathways to Creative Industries, equips young people with the confidence to realize their artistic passions.
“A lot of our work is trying to really make sure that the adults in their lives really have the tools to cultivate that greatness, and affirm it,” she said. “Also, that there are systems in place to really support them in their dreams.”
Like many other industries, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the arts world. The pandemic has forced artists to rethink their relationship with their craft, panelists said.
During the event, Burnside shared his music video “Silence,” which he filmed during quarantine. Burnside said the filming process helped remind him of the value of self-awareness.
“That’s the inspiration for the song and the video — just encouraging people to really be okay with the silence and be okay with stillness and realize that the true magic of their lives is found in the silence,” he said.
In the face of a global pandemic, recession, and racial reckoning, panelists said they believe art can bring people together.
In an interview preceding the event, evrYwhr said artists can share their personal purpose with others through their work.
“My understanding is, world peace comes from individual peace. It’s just individual peace, magnified — being able to take the message for yourself, and to live with conviction and accountability in the spaces that you believe you need to hold high and true,” he said.
Following the discussion, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson concluded the event by relating art to current movements for racial justice.
“We’ll only get to justice and freedom if we’re able to talk about it, if we’re able to dream it — we always say that you can’t fight for something you can’t imagine. And the work of art is fundamentally the work of imagination,” he said.