The mural project began in my former school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Mary Scroggs Elementary, located located just south of the main university area of town. The primary focus of my project--how art can create community and connect people--stemmed from my work both in the school as the sole art teacher for 500 children, and outside of school hours with grant-funded community art programs. In my state, funding for art education programs at the elementary level is always on the verge of being cut, and some schools have eliminated visual art instruction altogether, or share one teacher among three or more schools.
Scroggs is unusual in my state because it has so many international students, many of them refugees from a variety of countries: Myanmar, Honduras, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, etc. A rise in nationalism and intolerance for immigrants and refugees in my country has impacted my school directly. The percentage of ELL (English Language Learners) students has decreased, along with funding for positions and services. Over the past couple of years I noticed my non-American students had become quieter about their religion and home culture.
I chose Greece as the destination for my Fulbright research because of similar economic, social, and cultural crises gripping our two nations:
A recent economic crisis leading to funding cuts for social services and the arts.
Rising social issues of migration, asylum, nationalism, and racism.
Teachers who lack the resources and time to achieve the educational goals set for them while serving an increasingly diverse student body.
With the help of my Fulbright advisor in Greece, Dr. Maria Letsiou, I was able to pursue the mural project in Thessaloniki, at a local public junior high school. As a part of my research I visited other public and private schools to find out about their populations and art programs. After a few school visits, I realized that I wasn't seeing the refugee integration that I had expected to find in Greece, which is still receiving the majority of refugee arrivals in Europe. Including the perspective of refugee students in Greece was vital to my project, so I decided to take my project to Samos, and work with an NGO providing educational services to children from the refugee camp in the town of Vathy.
When I returned from Greece it was to a furor of news reports about immigration policy and the treatment of migrants/refugees at our own border. As I presented the mural to my students at Scroggs, one of the common responses that the kids had to the mural was relief that the problems of asylum seekers were so far away from here. As I listened to details on conditions in the detention centers, many of which were identical to the ones I saw on Samos, I realized the mural was actually creating a false sense of distance from the issues refugees face in my own country. I made the decision to take the mural to our southwest border, and work with migrant children in centers there. I found an ally for my project with the Hope Border Institute, in El Paso, Texas, and Casa del Migrante in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
There is so much more to say about the mural and the issues I became aware of and wrestled with during its creation. For more about specific locations and the panels each group created, check out these pages: Chapel Hill, Thessaloniki, the island of Samos, and Ciudad Juárez. You can explore the process, a visual analysis, and the impact of the work. I have also thought about my role as a white American dropping in to work with groups of children in another culture. If you are an educator, especially an art educator, you might be interested in considerations for creating this kind of project on your own.