We Need Fierce Creativity in a Pandemic
Melina O’Grady, M.Ed.
Here we are one year into the largest global pandemic in modern history. It’s a multi-faceted pandemic that has revealed as much as it has taken, and this tectonic shift in our daily lives is calling us to respond. Creativity — a nurturing of imaginative thought, movement, and action — is the response we need.
In my circles in education, many people are talking about the need for sweeping change — dismantling, disrupting, and ending practices that have been ineffective, harmful, and racist. Calling for action is not enough. We need imagination and creativity to know how to move next. We need new eyes to see what’s possible if we envision building more humane, restorative and just ways of learning, working and living together. If we want to do more than think outside the box, if we want to get rid of the box all together, we still need a road to get there.
Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has advocated for widespread at-home rapid antigen testing since March 2020, with little success. “I’ve realized that when we need to rise up as a country, we have truly no moral capacity to do it. It’s just the most mind-bending, complete “Twilight Zone” experience that makes you ask why the hell we even bother.” He continues to describe the consequences of our lack of a creative response,
I’m just astounded by the dysfunction, the willingness to just stay the course as hundreds of thousands of people die, and the unwillingness to innovate in literally any way. (Krueger, 2020)
As I have watched the stories of inaction unfold this year, I decided to look for inspiration from other disastrous times in human history. I often find the most elegant ideas in education come from outside the field itself, or emerge from a mash-up of concepts that cross sectors. After the tsunami in Japan in March 2011, artists were quick to react. Tsubasa Kato used rubble he found to build a three-story lighthouse in the disaster zone. Three hundred local residents helped with the project. “Japanese people have a shared culture of rallying together after natural disasters, and the project was a way audiences and victims could communicate on an emotional level,” he said. (Terra Daily, 2012)
Artists and community members also leveraged the moment to activate a movement against the country’s reliance on nuclear power and address inequities the crisis revealed. “There’s no way we can continue living like before,” says Ellie, of art collective ChimPom, which created a series of multimedia responses. “So many more young people are trying to tell the truth to the public,” she continues, “We should work to provide opportunities to reflect on what’s happened.” (Frontline, 2011)
Life in a pandemic is remarkable for its limits on movement, creating isolation and threatening individual and community safety. Living in Gee’s Bend, Alabama at any point in the past 300 years wasn’t all that different. In response, generations of quiltmakers there created a style of quilting both unique to their experience and resonating with patterns from their African ancestry. The lively, colorful designs became a piece of hope and a barrier to despair. Even more, the practice of quilting threaded the community with connection between young and old, history and present as children gathered around a quilter, listening to stories while learning to sew.
Most of my ideas come from looking at things. I can walk outside…and see ideas all around. Then sitting down looking at a quilt, I get another idea. — Mary Lee Bendolph (Wallach, 2006)
Gee’s Bend quilters, like so many who spoke out against racial injustice last summer, have been living a multi-generational epidemic of stress and trauma from forced migration, slavery, sharecropping, isolation and racial terror. Even before their arrival, the land itself was already marked by violence, when the indigenous Creek people were torn from the rich nook of soil along the Alabama river in the early 1800s and pushed farther west. For the African-descended people of Gee’s Bend who remained, quilting was spiritual resistance as well as craft, a way to do something “with love and peace and happiness” in a life full of constraint and deprivation, explained Loretta Pettway (Wallach, 2006). Farming “wasn’t nothing but hard work. And at the end of the year you couldn’t get nothing, and the little you got went for cottonseed,” continues Pettway, a 20th century quilter, who carries the last name of the largest slave-holding family in the region, a constant reminder of both the oppression and the resilience of her family’s story.
The stranglehold of white supremacy loomed large in Gee’s Bend. During the voting drives of the 1960s, authorities cut the ferry service to Camden, the main point of access to the outside world, and arrested residents in order to suppress their right to vote. That ferry service was not re-established until the 1980s. Through it all, the women of Gee’s Bend kept quilting. In their isolation, the tight knit community created remarkable social bonds and practices of community care. The quilters even pivoted last spring to make masks to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
The fields of education and youth development need this kind of community care. The work is splintered, erratic, full of snags and tears. There is sometimes innovation but very little cohesion. The experiment of universal free education has been fraught, and has never served all children equally or well. It’s not a matter of a few kids falling through cracks of an otherwise healthy system, it’s more that one hundred years into this experiment the system is so full of cracks, it can feel as if there’s nothing in between.
Years ago, one of my creative writing students, Isabel*, was barely hanging on in middle school. She felt uncomfortable at school, her body was going through dramatic physical change, and she didn’t want the attention she was getting from classmates. Isabel came from a large family of older brothers and didn’t have a good way to navigate puberty. Storytelling became the branch she needed to step into her life. She wrote about her brothers, about the cow who terrified her when she was five living in Mexico, about how her peers and her teachers saw her, and about how she saw herself and her own aspirations. Her family, like so many, fled poverty in one place for the dream of stability in another. Her writing brought her into different communities of young writers, into places where her stories could be linked with others to create a broader picture of youth experience, and a springboard to project her forward. I was in awe of how she took the branch of writing to link together a net that could shape and catch her.
Many young writers and activists are concerned about the planet’s climate and see their futures blurred by a cloud of pending climate doom. This past year was also shaped by unprecedented environmental disaster that sent people fleeing for their lives across the world — record-breaking fires in California, Oregon and Colorado, record-breaking storms and floods in the Caribbean and southern US. More than 9.8 million people worldwide were displaced due to climate disaster in just the first half of 2020. Umair Irfan of Vox News suggests that,
In the future, disaster planners will have to better account for how many things can go wrong at once, and that areas may not have time to fully recover from one catastrophe before the next one strikes. (Irfan, 2020)
While scientists have been warning us for decades about the disastrous impacts of climate change, we haven’t gotten the message. We are going to need both innovation and will to make change. We don’t have time to sit back and wait until it gets worse, or to fight about whether or not it’s real. We need fierce creative thought and community will to conjure up approaches that are long-term, pliable, flexible and center the needs of people and communities with the least positional power. Displacement from climate crisis as well as economic and political disasters will continue to be the norm until we address the changing planet with collective approaches that can understand the climate realities while also responding to the essentials of human life.
One of the largest refugee camps in the world is the Za’atari camp in Jordan, home to nearly 80,000 Syrians, including 20,000 children. Life in a refugee camp is restricted, the future is unknown, and hope can be scarce. Circus artists have stepped into camps around the world to nurture imagination where hope is scarce. In Za’atari camp, groups like Clowns without Borders UK teach children techniques to play alone and together, develop unique talents, bring awe and joy and humor to their communities. The laughter and the wonder can take away the traumatic memories of war and loss, if just for a moment, allowing the performers and the audience to breathe, to pause, and to make space to imagine a better future. (Marah, 2019)
Artists have certainly not been silenced in the US this year, and many have used this pause to lean in to their art, but we need more. All of us, in health care, social justice, education, climate science — we need cohesion and a weaving together of our creative energies and ideas. We need to keep the momentum from the Freedom Summer for Black Lives, and to transform that energy into a pulsating flow of policies, attitudes, actions and activities to reconnect our communities. We can use this moment to springboard into the future, to leave behind what has dragged us into complacency and boredom, to allow ourselves to be inspired by bold thinkers and creators. We need the inter-generational storytelling of Gee’s bend, the community collaboration from ChimPom, the wonder and joy from circus artists at Za’atari camp. We need to keep vigorously spinning a web of new ideas, social connections, emotional and spiritual care.
A juggling act is not going to quiet a virus, a quilt is not going to stop a bullet, a beautiful sculpture will not put out a fire. But art fills the spaces in our hearts that need healing and nurture. Imagination can inspire a vision of the future that is, in Toni Cade Bambara’s view, “irresistible.” Look for creativity in your community and support it. Take time yourself to nurture your creative mind, to think differently, even for just a few minutes a day. Share your ideas with someone else. Ask questions about how we can be and think differently in large and small ways. We can’t ignore trauma, pain, and injustice. We need to see it, name it, feel it and work through it together. Creativity, connection and wonder can help us get there.
*Isabel is a pseudonym
Melina O’Grady, M.Ed, is an educational leadership and organizational coach, trainer and consultant, and an occasional writer.
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