Arts & Social Justice

Emory students and faculty join forces with Atlanta artists to explore how creativity can inspire change

In the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of unarmed Black people, Emory senior Liz Greene found herself researching a historic tragedy with a strong contemporary resonance.

Before last year, Greene had never heard of the 1906 Atlanta race massacre — a bloody uprising sparked by inflammatory claims that sent nearly 5,000 white men rioting through downtown Atlanta, vandalizing Black-owned businesses and hanging, stabbing, bludgeoning and shooting Black residents. At the end of the three-day melee, 25 Black Atlantans were dead and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed. None of the killers were convicted.

“It was very powerful and felt very relevant — a reminder that people have been fighting against these injustices for a long time and still have a long way to go,” she acknowledges.

But for Greene and others enrolled in Emory’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases course last semester, the deadly uprising would become much more than a grim footnote in Atlanta history.

Working with award-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff, a professor of practice in Emory’s Creative Writing Program, and Emory alumnus Garrett Turner, a professional actor and playwright, 16 students found themselves imagining the untold human stories of the victims and participants.

The collaboration was part of Emory’s new Arts and Social Justice Fellows program, which brings together Emory students and faculty members with Atlanta artists to explore how creative thinking and expression can inspire change.

What happens when artists, professors and students come together to explore racial justice? Carlton Mackey and Kevin Karnes explain the Arts & Social Justice Fellows program.

In the cold cases course, students developed creative projects that gave voice to the past, writing dramatic monologues, dialogues and poems that were performed by professional actors via Zoom and recorded.

“The result was astonishing,” says Turner, who enjoyed the challenge of coaxing creativity from students who didn’t necessarily identify as artists. “We were asking them to write a scene from a play using particularly complex and heavy source material, and they took it on bravely.”

Beyond the student experience, “our hope is that those personal, intimate moments will help humanize the victims and present a much more complete view of the scope and the impact of those fateful days in Atlanta,” Klibanoff says.

In their dramatic vignettes, he saw students reacting “not just to the horrors of 1906, but also to the horrors of 2020,” including the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery.

“I think they saw this as a chance to channel their response,” Klibanoff adds.

Creativity & Collaboration

The Arts and Social Justice Fellows program invites local artists into Emory classrooms to collaborate with faculty and students, using existing courses to explore social justice issues and create artistic projects.

It was created in partnership between the Emory College Center for Creativity and the Arts and the Ethics and the Arts program within the Emory University Center for Ethics.

Out of a pool of more than 70 applicants, six Atlanta-area artists were selected as the inaugural cohort of Arts and Social Justice Fellows. They were paired with six Emory faculty members, whose courses covered topics that included zoning, contracts and environmental racism; epigenetics and the human condition; film, media and the art of social change; feminism and the art of activism; and prevention of mental and behavioral disorders.

The program included classes in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Oxford College, Goizueta Business School and the Rollins School of Public Health.

“Bringing these artists together with a group of scholars representing the undergraduate and professional schools offers critical nuance to the public dialogue about these issues and prepares college students to face them with courage and compassion in the real world,” says Carlton Mackey, co-creator of the Arts and Social Justice Fellows program and director of the Ethics and the Arts program.

Students in Film, Media and the Art of Social Change created a documentary for the nonprofit Gangstas to Growers. Hear them explain why they took the class.

Each month throughout the semester, the full cohort of six faculty, six ASJ Fellows and their students gathered to learn about each other’s work and exchange ideas.

Final projects encouraged student expression through film, poetry, photography, painting and other visual works, which were presented in a virtual showcase last month and may be viewed on the program’s newly launched website. The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship worked with the ASJ project team to build the website, with ECDS digital scholarship specialist Kayla Shipp acting as lead consultant.

Introducing the Dec. 15 virtual showcase, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves praised the program, noting that “in times of crisis and unrest, the role of art becomes even more important in our lives as a source of comfort, strength and shared understanding.”

For Arts and Social Justice program co-creator Kevin Karnes, some of the most powerful moments of the event featured students talking about their own experiences.

Inviting artists into the classroom helped “move conversations into very different spaces, challenging everyone to think about their disciplines differently than they ever have before and helping artists to reimagine their own work,” says Karnes, associate dean for the arts in Emory College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Emory Center for Creativity and the Arts.

Moving forward, “our plan is to sustain these conversations, to take this into a year-round program,” he adds.

Faculty and artist applications for the 2021 Arts & Social Justice Fellowship will open in late spring.

Powerful Moments

The collaborations between students, faculty and community artists were diverse, with intriguing, sometimes unexpected, interdisciplinary pairings.

Elizabeth Walker, a research assistant professor of Behavioral, Social and Health Education Sciences in the Rollins School of Public Health, joined composer and cellist Okorie “OkCello” Johnson to help students consider art as a way to frame conversations about mental health and resilience — especially important in times of social upheaval and oppression.

The class project: Powerful spoken-word poetry set against a dramatic video montage and the urgent backdrop of Johnson’s cello composition.

Through a course on “Social Justice: Zoning, Contracts and Environmental Racism,” Allison Burdette, professor of practice in business law at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, joined playwright and actor Olivia Dawson to explore how personal storytelling can teach empathy — student narratives about racism woven into visual art and a haunting video.

Arri Eisen, professor of pedagogy in the Department of Biology and Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts, was paired with Emory alumni Fahamu Pecou, a visual artist who examines trauma and the Black male experience, to help students understand the effects of trauma on our genetic make-up.

After reading cutting-edge epigenetics research, students worked in teams to synthesize the information and make an original piece of visual art, using a technique called creating “an exquisite corpse” to assemble collections of words and images.

Art that shows DNA, marchers with linked arms, ears, and a body that is similar to Mickey Mouse

The final project created by biology students evokes the genetic, environmental and choice models to explore "how the three aspects of our make-up come together," explains artist Fahamu Pecou.

The final project created by biology students evokes the genetic, environmental and choice models to explore "how the three aspects of our make-up come together," explains artist Fahamu Pecou.

For Pecou, the project was transformative: “I realize how notions of trauma trigger evolutionary development — that you have to go through certain experiences for your body to learn to react and ultimately adapt and how essential those kinds of things are in our development.”

Emma Kantor, an Emory senior studying creative writing and film, says melding historical research and storytelling through the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case course required “digging deep to understand hour-by-hour what happened that night.”

“A lot of this class was uncovering stories that aren’t widely understood,” she says. “Learning about the 1906 Atlanta massacre made me think about what is happening right now that won’t be widely understood — how history can be presumed and lost and found.”

A highlight: Talking about script-writing with an actor and playwright and watching her work performed by professionals for the first time.

“Writing is such a solitary activity,” Kantor says. “Seeing our words come alive was a powerful moment — overall, just an amazing experience.”

The Classes

Click to learn more about each class and view their final projects