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Emory faculty, students join forces with Atlanta artists to explore social justice

The new Emory Arts and Social Justice Fellows program allows Emory faculty and students to collaborate with Atlanta artists to explore racial injustice and other inequities. Participating artists (clockwise from left) are Olivia Dawson, Shanequa Gay, Ash Nash, Garrett Turner, Fahamu Pecou and Okorie “OkCello” Johnson.

Amid a groundswell of national attention to racial and social injustice, Emory professors and students will come together with Atlanta artists this fall to explore how creative thinking and artistic expression can inspire change.

The new Emory University Arts and Social Justice (ASJ) Fellowship pairs artists with six classes ranging from business to biology, including courses in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Oxford College, Goizueta Business School and the Rollins School of Public Health.

The project is a partnership between the Emory College Center for Creativity and Arts (CCA) and the Emory University Center for Ethics.

“The idea for the ASJ fellows came together this summer out of conversations between the Ethics Center’s Carlton Mackey and myself,” explains Kevin Karnes, executive director of the CCA and associate dean for the arts in Emory College. “We talked about how Emory can engage meaningfully with our city in an unfolding moment of crisis, and about what we at Emory can learn from Atlanta’s artists, many of whom have been working tirelessly towards racial and social justice their whole careers.”

Selected from a pool of more than 70 applicants, the inaugural cohort of Arts and Social Justice Fellows showcases some of the most celebrated and vibrant threads of artistic creativity in the city. The cohort consists of Olivia Dawson, visual artist Shanequa Gay, cellist and composer Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, arts advocate and administrator Ash Nash, visual artist and Emory alum Fahamu Pecou, and actor and Emory alum Garrett Turner.

“This inaugural cohort centers the voices of Atlanta’s Black creatives and highlights the spectrum of offerings of this vital network to the national movement for social justice and racial equity,” says Mackey, director of the Emory Ethics & the Arts Program. “We are so fortunate to welcome such a premiere cross section of the Atlanta art scene and for our cohort to include not only visual and performing artists whose art serves as a vehicle for their activism, but also a highly effective arts administrator with a reputation for connecting artists and organizations to affect positive social change.” 

Participating faculty members will work alongside their partnered ASJ Fellows to design creative projects that reflect on racial or other inequities. The projects will be embedded into existing courses taught by the faculty members and brought to fruition by students within the framework of their classes. 

Each month throughout the semester, the full cohort of six faculty, six ASJ Fellows and their students will gather to learn about each other’s work, and to exchange ideas across the university about the arts and social justice. The semester will conclude with a public unveiling and citywide conversation to consider collectively the completed projects and the questions they raise.

“Bringing these ASJ Fellows together with a group of scholars representing the undergraduate and professional schools — whose courses challenge traditional thinking about the intersection of race, public health and business — will advance and offer critical nuance to the public dialogue about these issues, as well as prepare college students to face these issues with courage and compassion as they encounter them in the real world,” Mackey says.

Karnes and Mackey are now working to identify funding sources to enable the program to continue and expand into the future.

“What drew us together is our shared faith in the power of art to open spaces for conversation, community-making and collective action,” says Karnes. “We believe that those things are urgently needed if we are to emerge from this moment in a way that is whole, and, we hope, better than how we lived together before.” 

Visit the Arts at Emory calendar for public events related to the Arts and Social Justice fellowship as they are announced throughout the fall. More information about arts initiatives on campus can be found on the Ethics Center and CCA websites. 

Courses & Faculty/Artist Pairings

Social Justice: Zoning, Contracts and Environmental Racism

Allison Burdette, professor of practice, Business Law, Goizueta Business School, with Olivia Dawson, actor and playwright 

“I have taught this seminar for over 10 years and in the class have tried to bridge the chasm between discussion and thought to action,” Burdette says. “While there have been some small successes, my struggle to move to meaningful action has frustrated me. When I saw the description for this fellowship, the portion that I found compelling and exciting was the chance to move ideas into actions.”

With her deep knowledge of the power of storytelling, actor, writer and producer Olivia Dawson is poised to bridge the gap for Burdette and her students. 

“Artists of color are master storytellers. Stories can build worlds — or tear them apart. If words have power, then stories are life,” Dawson says.  “The way we tell stories — whether in word, movement, song, through a lens, music or on a canvas — has the potential to alter perception, reality and the world.”

Epigenetics and the Human Condition

Arri Eisen, professor of pedagogy, Biology and the Institute for the Liberal Arts, Emory College, with Fahamu Pecou, visual artist

“Imagine if there were a link between the experience of art, its creation and our genes. My course, Epigenetics and the Human Condition, is a space for such imaginings — a place where the next generation of physicians and scientists can see and think about life and living from molecules to communities,” explains Eisen. “We’ve always known art makes us think, changes us and moves us forward. Now we can begin to understand why and how, a topic that ripples out to and could help all of us — scientists, humanists, humans — do better.”

Eisen is working with artist and Emory alum Fahamu Pecou, who earned his PhD from Emory’s Laney Graduate School in 2018.   His work was seen recently at the Michael C. Carlos Museum through his exhibition “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance.” Through this pairing, students will view the study of epigenetics through the lens of Pecou’s examination of the “fractured Black body.”

“My art raises questions about the types of images and representations that come to inform contemporary readings and performances of Black male masculinity,” Pecou notes. “By engaging with various stereotypes and misconceptions about Black men — both those imposed and those assumed — I attempt a critical intervention concerning the visible and invisible threads that make up our collective understandings of Black identity.” 

Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases

Hank Klibanoff, professor of practice, Creative Writing Program, Emory College, with Garrett Turner, actor 

This summer’s announcement of the ASJ Fellowship application coincided with a renewed correspondence between Hank Klibanoff and Garrett Turner, a 2011 graduate of Emory College. The fellow Alabamians have known each other since Turner first made his mark on Emory’s campus during his undergraduate years as both a Woodruff and Bobby Jones Scholar.

For years now, Klibanoff’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project and its Peabody Award-winning podcast, “Buried Truths,” have sought to unearth the untold stories of victims of racially motivated violence. This year, for the first time, Klibanoff and his students will focus on the lives and times of known victims of the 1906 Atlanta race massacre. 

“Our goal is to learn enough about the victims that we can humanize them, animate their lives and put them into historical context,” says Klibanoff. “We will seek to elevate them from mere names or ‘unknowns’ etched into a monument, from ciphers, into the real people they were.” 

Turner views the fellowship as an opportunity to not only use his experience to bring life to these untold stories, but also to give back to the institution that helped him hone his artistic voice. 

“Returning to Emory for me is both an honor and a great responsibility,” says Turner. “This community gifted me with so much during and after my time there that I feel compelled and challenged to serve the students and the cause of this new Fellows program in a way that will truly make the community proud and will also shed light on some untold truths about the history of race in Atlanta. 

“If Black lives matter, then Black deaths matter. If a society doesn’t care about the dead, then it doesn’t care about the living. So in honoring their deaths, we are honoring their lives.” 

Film, Media and the Art of Social Change

Carlton Mackey, director, Ethics & the Arts Program, Emory Center for Ethics, and Edward Queen, director, Ethics and Servant Leadership Program, Emory Center for Ethics, with Ash Nash, Founder/CEO, Power Haus Creative

Arts advocate/administrator Ash Nash is no stranger to leading creative projects meant to capture the hearts and minds of the entire nation. In 2019, Nash’s organization Power Haus Creative partnered with Atlanta artist Fabian Williams for “Kaeperbowl,” a public art initiative that erected murals of Colin Kaepernick across Atlanta to coincide with Super Bowl LIII coming to town. Since then, Nash has continued to collaborate with Kaepernick and his Know Your Rights Camp, an international camp focused on advancing the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities.

“I have made a career of challenging systems and demanding systemic change through Atlanta’s arts industry in ways that directly, socially and economically impact underserved artists and communities,” says Nash.

Nash joins Carlton Mackey and Edward Queen in a course examining film and other art-based mediums to explore the function of media in social change movements. Students will move between the classroom and working in creative teams to develop a short documentary film or photographic exhibit.

The Feminist Art(s) of Activism

Alix Olson, assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), Oxford College, with Shanequa Gay, visual artist

“I want to challenge students to investigate how feminist modes of creative action can intervene in national and global discourses that shape their lives,” says Alix Olson.

Joining her in this quest is Shanequa Gay, a visual artist whose work “evaluates place, tradition, storytelling and the experiences of African-Ascendant people.” Together, Olson and Gay will familiarize students with a wide range of artistic vehicles through which political life in the United States has been explored, challenged and re-imagined in feminist ways.

“By supplying funding and creative civic engagement along with time and space to have necessary conversations involving the social concerns of surrounding, national and global, communities affected and infected by COVID-19 and the continued journey toward dismantling systemic racism, the Emory Arts and Social Justice Fellows program allows Atlanta’s artistic activists to move beyond niche micro-economies and white wall spaces which is what 21st century artivism is about,” says Gay.

Prevention of Mental and Behavioral Disorders

Elizabeth Walker, research assistant professor of Behavioral, Social, and Health Education Sciences (BSHES), Rollins School of Public Health, with Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, composer and cellist 

Elizabeth Walker hopes integrating her class into the ASJ Fellowship program will not only open up her students to the possibilities of artistic expression in the quest to prevent mental disorders and promote mental health, but will also assist them personally in coping with the negative health effects of the events of recent months.

“This year, the burdens and uncertainty of COVID-19 and the trauma of police violence are impacting the mental health of the students,” says Walker. “Art is a powerful medium to support a sense of community, as well as frame discussions about how the current conditions we are living through affect mental health and examine resiliency in individuals and communities to weather these events.”

Walker’s ASJ fellowship partner, Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, knows quite a bit about the power of creative expression to build resiliency and fully integrate one’s experiences. “My work has been carving out protected space in my life, combining all the parts of me — the scholar, the writer, the performer, the teacher — into projects that draw fully from my experience and resist my instinct to compartmentalize,” he says. “It’s now demanding from me focused attention and a courageous spirit to bear witness to this time in my life and our world. 

“I have been chronicling and expressing the myriad ways in which the past plays with our present, our oppression births our liberation, and our myths beget our futures.”

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