The Social Justice Sewing Academy provides a platform where disadvantaged students create art as a way of narrating, shaping, and making meaning of their experiences in the world.
By Aditi Mayer
The Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) provides a platform where disadvantaged students create art as a way of narrating, shaping, and making meaning of their experiences in the world. Created by UC Berkeley alum and current Harvard graduate student Sara Trail, SJSA aims to educate disadvantaged youth on issues such as incarceration, human trafficking, income inequality and gentrification.
This form of expression through art is an effort to draw attention to, mobilize action toward, and attempt to intervene in systems of inequality and injustice. InSight Magazine caught up with Trail to discuss the importance of arts in creating emboldened activists and empowered leaders, and advice for others looking to merge the worlds of expression and social justice.
*Q&A edited for length and clarity
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP? DO YOU THINK THAT AFFECTED YOUR PERCEPTION OF COMMUNITY BUILDING AND SOCIAL ACTIVISM?
I grew up in a relatively small suburb outside of San Francisco, CA. Attending a predominantly White K-12 school, I was often the only student of color in my grade. This ostracizing experience positively influenced my perceptions, because it showed me that you don’t have to be of the same ethnicity to build a community. I learned that there are many layers to a community, and experienced what it was like to have friends— often in positions of power— that was in true solidarity with issues I cared about.
“Sewing was a matter of survival.”
Can you tell me about your introduction to sewing?
Sewing was a matter of survival. As a slave, my great-great grandmother Margaret Smart used scraps of clothing to make quilts to keep children warm during the harsh winters, as most slaves’ quarters had no source of heat. My grandmother gave my mom a quilt that Smart made in the mid-1800s, and my mom passed it to me. It is a priceless treasure to the family.
I began using my first sewing machine at the age of four, horrifying my grandmother. My mom told my grandmother that if I ran my fingers under the machine she would take me to the emergency room, and that my injuries would not be life threatening. I really wanted to sew, and I often cried until my mom let me sit in her lap to guide the fabric underneath the needle.
Outside of my mom and Aunt Emory, my biggest mentor was Mrs. Eleanor O’Donnell. I met Eleanor at a quilting class at the age of 11 where she saw my passion for sewing, and offered to teach me advanced quilting techniques at her home. After that, I went to her home after school to learn almost every week.
Eleanor is such an incredible quilter, and she is the one responsible for both my quilting talent and styles. From 6th grade until I graduated from high school, Eleanor was always there behind the scenes helping me grow and develop in quilting. Her kindness and patience as a mentor is a gift I can never repay.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR COMING OF AGE, POLITICALLY? WAS THERE A TIME WHEN YOUR PASSION FOR SEWING INTERSECTED WITH YOUR SOCIAL ACTIVISM?
It wasn’t until my years at UC Berkeley where I realized how passionate I was about using my voice to create positive social change. I took classes on critical race theory and ethnic studies where I learned about levels of power, oppression, and privilege. At the same time, I “unlearned” a lot of previously taught “history”. A lot of the things that were always floating in the back of my mind were brought to the forefront. The more I learned about social justice issues, the more actively I searched for ways to get involved. A salient point in my political ‘coming of age’ was during my freshman year at Berkeley when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Trayvon and I were only 13 days apart in age, but after his death, I realized I wanted to do something. Following the case, I was inspired to make a memorial quilt for Trayvon Martin.
This was when my sewing talent and passion for social justice intersected.
WHAT BRED THE IDEA OF THE SOCIAL JUSTICE SEWING ACADEMY? HOW OLD WERE YOU DURING THIS TIME?
For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population — over 3.9 billion people — lived in cities. According to the U.S. Census, approximately 81 percent of the U.S. lives in urban areas, and 11 million of these residents are adolescents. As a student at Harvard, I have noticed that both scholarly literature and mainstream media portray urban neighborhoods as “socially toxic environments.” They are marked by community violence, overcrowded and underfunded schools, environmental problems, unhealthy food, and limited access to quality health care and other social services. To best support the well-being of the growing population of youth in cities, it is important to interrogate the assumptions often made about their realities and seek to understand urban spaces from their perspective.
Despite being only 20 and graduating from UC Berkeley, I applied for a grant to support intellectual and creative pursuits. These in turn would raise public awareness of various social issues. I was awarded the grant, and decided to start Social Justice Sewing (SJSA) when I realized others might also want to express themselves by combining sewing and social justice. Once I was awarded the grant, the money was used to purchase equipment and fabrics needed, and thus, SJSA was created. SJSA uses an art and social justice based curriculum that allows students to investigate, critique and take action against injustices plaguing their local and larger communities.
I taught the first pilot session of SJSA during the summer of 2016 at Berkeley, when I was 21. This allowed me to expand the standard classroom experience to include sewing instruction.
It was a powerful experience.
I am positive of this program’s success in developing youth identity, empowerment, and awareness by connecting youth to local and global issues through textile expression. At the same time, the program is a safe-space where students can openly discuss these issues and develop the agency needed to effectively mitigate the associated negative effects. The feedback from the high school students really let me know that SJSA is a positive experience for them; they left the class knowing how to sew and process their societal concerns into beautiful quilts, but their artwork will also be seen and admired by many.
We always end the program with a final project to create a ‘social justice art quilt’. There is also an art show which features all the textile and fiber projects that the students have designed and sewn. Ultimately, I believe the students will learn sewing can be more than just a hobby; it can be a revolutionary practice of resistance.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST HURDLES IN STARTING SJSA? HOW LONG WAS THE PROCESS BETWEEN FRUITION AND CREATION?
The biggest hurdle in starting SJSA was definitely the financial aspect. It is currently a 510(c)3 California recognized nonprofit, but before becoming a nonprofit, even getting fabric donations was a challenge. The whole process was really short. I received the grant in May and started the program in June. As soon as I was awarded the money, I went and bought all the materials in a week while also advertising the program to local high schools. I had a large, immediate response.
WERE THERE ANY INITIAL ISSUES CAPTURING THE INTERESTS OF STUDENTS?
Initially, students were caught up on the fact that they didn’t know how to sew. However, once they began to research, they developed an awareness for certain topics and found personal connections. These connections made those concepts tangible for them. By creating authentic social justice art for the world to see, it adds purpose to student work. By showcasing their artwork, we empower students to have impact outside of the classroom.
I SAW THAT THE FINAL DESIGNS SPAN COUNTLESS SUBJECTS, FROM GENTRIFICATION TO IMMIGRATION. HOW MUCH OF AN ACTIVE ROLE DO YOU PLAY IN BRINGING THROUGH THESE TOPICS AND NARRATIVES IN STUDENTS WORKS?
While I do have structured lessons and activities about specific issues, I like to only provide an overview and explanations of the differences between equality, equity, social justice, and liberation. The students have the main agency in determining what they research and create art about. With youth-led activities like intentional team building to sociopolitical reflection, they have become engaged in problem-solving within their communities and have built leadership, research, and even presentation skills. In my teaching, I always try to practice vulnerability, transparency, and humility. I consider myself a more of ‘conversation facilitator’ in this SJSA role.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON EXPOSURE TO THE ARTS FOR STUDENTS OF COLOR IN PARTICULAR?
Students of color often have limited access to resources and critical open expression. Often times, there is this idea that communities of color don’t value the voices or opinions of the youth because it’s seen as ‘defiant’ or ‘disrespectful.’ I believe that art can become a medium and a platform for these marginalized groups to express themselves.
HAVING TAUGHT A WIDE ARRAY OF INDIVIDUALS, WERE THERE ANY ASPECTS OF YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH YOUTH OF COLOR THAT STOOD OUT TO YOU?
I think the biggest unexpected lesson I’ve seen is witnessing the differences in youth’s experiences and their perspectives which are highlighted by their location. The concerns of students about social justice at a workshop in a private school ranges: from saving the turtles to climate change and stopping animal abuse/cruelty. However, a workshop in Oakland or Chicago — with students of color — youth are far more concerned with police brutality and gun control (sharing many experiences of their loved ones being killed randomly).
Aditi Mayer is the founder of InSight Magazine. As a Literary Journalism and International Studies double major, she is passionate about the intersections of media and social action. Beyond working on InSight Magazine, she can be found on her sustainable fashion blog or serving as a board member of the Asian American Journalist Association. She is also a Student Ambassador for the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation.