STL’s Gateway Arch, commonly referred to as the Gateway to the West, turned out to be the gateway to the rest…of this trip.
Our week started in New Orleans matching books to prisoners, and ended in St. Louis with a song book to fan the flames of discontent. In between, we encountered flying kids, globetrotters, human bridges via epoch choirs, and a 12-story slide with a murder mystery.[Sidenote, we believe Sarah Koenig should base the next season of Serial on City Museum Founder and artistic genius Bob Cassily’s questionable end. Or, maybe our documentary should take a dramatic turn?]
Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners
Last Sunday, we parked in a New Orleans neighborhood, crossed the street, and entered the home of Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners – an organization that sends reading materials to the incarcerated. We spent three hours with an amazing cohort of NOLA volunteers reading letters from inmates, and filling their requests from the entirely donated library. The program is based on the premise that reading materials can be a factor in rehabilitation, as well as preparation for re-entry into society – an antidote to the prison-industrial complex. We filled requests for dictionaries and resume-writing books, business skills, daily affirmations, LGBTQIA+ romance, home improvement, landscaping, journals, art books, vampire fiction, addiction, and the list goes on. All three of us want to continue volunteering at our own branch DC Books to Prisoners. Thanks to our new friend Steve who guided us through an orientation, shared the history of the all-volunteer organization, and spoke with us about mass incarceration. Steve is a punk rock, dynamo do-gooder, and an excellent dinner date!
House of Dance and Feathers
On a tip from Steve, we visited House of Dance and Feathers in the lower ninth ward, where we met the museum director Ronald W. Lewis and got a tour of his incredible collection of Mardi Gras ephemera, including costumes, sashes, accessories, and framed photos and letters from presidents, community members, mentors and mentees. We got to see his own artistry in his handcrafted, beaded Indian Suits. Ronald shared the living history of Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Skull and Bone Gangs (of which he is a Gatekeeper), and the Baby Dolls. We asked him, “Why Dance and Feathers.” His face swifted into a full-bodied smile, he glowed, his heart positively swelled with pride and an inner dance party as he said, “because this is what we do in New Orleans. We dance in the street, and we use feathers in our craft.”
The drive to St. Louis was straight and flat. Roadside attractions were crop dusters and billboard threats of Hell! We commented on how approximately ¾ of our drive cross country was accompanied by highway billboards with religious context, but none of our experiences or interviews had yet addressed religion. That was about to change.
We shadowed Circus Harmony for a day in their circus school at City Museum. We learned how social circus teaches the art of life. And we learned that the amazing women who run Circus Harmony are artist activists of incredible technique, passion, and direct action. The young performers and coaches we met are as adept at aerial acts as they are at big-picture views; Circus Harmony, as the Artistic/Executive Director Jessica Hentoff would say, teaches kids how to “defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers.” In 2001, Jessica brought together young Jewish and Muslim children in St. Louis in Circus Salaam Shalom – an initiative to inspire and connect different communities. Today, Circus Harmony runs a number of outreach, training, scholarship, and peace-building initiatives that connect children from different backgrounds through circus arts. All the words can not express the pure joy we experienced in watching young folks achieve great goals in the ring! Check out this clip which will spin your world as surely as the plate on a stick spun by the boy on a unicycle.
Arts and Faith
We met with Co-Executive Director Leslie Heberlie of Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, and we discussed art and faith, especially how it is harnessed for an annual 9/11 Memorial Concert which brings together professional singers and musicians with music groups from different faith congregations. We also spoke with St. Louis community members Carolyn Losos and Batya Abramson-Goldstein – two distinguished women who have made careers out of community organization and interfaith dialogue, and both of whom serve on the Interfaith Partnership’s initiative Arts & Faith St. Louis. These women are dedicated to using the transformative power of art to celebrate common ground. We asked, “Why interfaith practices?” Batya explained that despite the differences we celebrate, interfaith dialogue is about our shared responsibilities to seek justice and respond to injustice. The three women with whom we spoke are vibrant, nuanced, and dedicated. They are spearheading connections, parting obstacles, finding ways to reach out that embrace dogma, challenge pre-conceived notions, and subvert sermons and rhetoric in favor of moving melodies. If you’re curious how youth spirituality and connection to ritual intersects with their work, so are they; Arts & Faith St. Louis is at a crossroads. Though many faiths share symbols, they want to ensure the message is more than symbolic.
Bread and Roses
Our last interview was with Joan Suarez of Bread and Roses Missouri – a woman and an arts organization committed to bringing community activists and artists together to make change. Bread and Roses uses after school arts programming, summer camp curriculum, and community theatre (most recently a hip hopera) to address the racial divides in greater St. Louis, the economic climate, and the needs of workers and their families.
Curriculum is about engaging kids in critical thinking and artistic expression about their current local politics and future rights on the job. Joan explains the notion that hearts starve as well as bodies; one needs bread, and one needs roses. This anthem of the civil rights and labor movement comes from James Oppenheim’s 1911 poem Bread and Roses, and it’s now the expressive cry of this St. Louis arts activism non-profit.
We met Joan at her home, where her walls are covered, and her tables are decorated with art triumphant, soaring, heart-wrenching, and delicate. We viewed framed union calls to action, interpretations of refugees and immigrants, and expressions of solace describing the art and artists associated with her initiatives.
120 Project’s Social Justice Arts Activism Road Trip is complete.
After 28 days on the road, Emily left for Bates Dance Festival, and Oliver and I are driving home on Sunday.
We have one day left to raise the funds to make our documentary and comic book anthology a reality. Please share our campaign today. Ask a friend to donate. In this way, you, too, can be a gateway to the rest.
With gratitude and deeply humbled by all the inspiring folks we met,
Sarah, Oliver, and Emily