Sara Trail created a quilt in memory of Trayvon Martin. Then her love for sewing and passion for social justice intertwined. After graduating from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, she founded the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) to be a platform where youth create art that engages and educates communities.
How did you get started sewing? What were your first projects?
I started sewing at age four, sitting on my mom’s lap and helping her guide fabric at the sewing machine. Then I made small quilts with leftover fabric from my mom’s quilt projects.
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You “turned pro” at a young age, organizing sewing birthday parties, writing Sew with Sara, starring in Cool Stuff to Sew with Sara and designing for a major fabric company. Does jumping in with both feet come naturally to you?
I have always enjoyed doing anything artistic! I loved beading, pottery making, coloring and taking stained glass making lessons. So using my hands to create has always been my joy. But my keenest interest was always sewing above other crafting. I have always been passionate about trying to create something useful and beautiful.
Do you have time to make your own art? Tell us about some recent work.
I work full time now as a teacher working in a county jail helping inmates get their high school diplomas, so that keeps me quite busy. But I do enjoy quilting and sew quite a bit when I am free. These days most of my sewing keeps me busy piecing together SJSA collaborative quilt tops in Emeryville at Nancy William’s “Quilting Fool Studio.” I still learn so much from many of the women who sew for SJSA. There are so many talented volunteers who are incredible fiber artists and I enjoy learning from them as much as I can.
Do you think that creative ability is innate? Or is creativity a skill that can be developed?
I believe that creative ability is a skill that can be developed. All children are creative when they are young and uninhibited. But as children grow, receiving negative feedback regarding artistic efforts can shut down a child and make him/her feel inadequate or afraid to take risks in creating art. Fortunately, I grew up in a family that gave me lots of encouragement and opportunities to learn so many fun and interesting ways to create with my hands.
When did social activism become inspiration for your art? Was it a gradual awakening or a lightbulb moment?
My family is a very politically engaged family. My mom and dad were always active in the local NAACP. So my first call to action was marching at 14 to protest against the housing crisis and lack of action by the banking community that was foreclosing on so many homes. I marched alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson in front of the Federal Reserve in San Francisco.
My mom’s twin sister, Dr. Katherine Tate, is an accomplished, tenured political science professor at Brown. So I grew up around a dinner table that was always filled with socially responsible conversations about how to make the world a better place.
When I was 17 years old, Trayvon Martin was murdered and he was only 2 weeks older than I was. It really shook me. For the first time, I created an art quilt and it spoke to his unfair and unwarranted murder and the lack of justice the Martin family experienced when George Zimmerman went unpunished for his crime.
What inspired you to pursue graduate studies in education?
By the time I graduated from California Berkeley, I knew I wanted to be an educator. One day, I would like to become a school superintendent to help write policy for students and create relevant curriculum that will help students of color learn and succeed in and outside of the classroom. I want to make sure that all children receive a solid education that is delivered to them in a way that connects with individuals and builds empathy and excellence.
Tell us about the Social Justice Sewing Academy. How did it come about? What challenges did you face? Where do workshops take place?
I started SJSA with a grant I received from Berkeley after getting the Stronach prize. I facilitated a 6 week summer program where kids were able to create social justice art quilts from start to finish. When I was at Harvard, I had workshops where students created small quilt squares with fabric glue that spoke a message to the viewer regarding a social justice issue they cared about.
Then the challenge was how to take the glued fabric quilt blocks and get them hand embroidered beautifully by unpaid volunteers so that I could sew them all into a collaborative art quilt. I hoped that embroidery volunteers would heed my call to action and by using social media. But I was astonished by how many good-hearted, socially conscience people were willing to help me!
Now, SJSA has over 700 volunteers who embroider and mail back quilt blocks from all over the US, England, Canada, Chile and Cuba. Our workshops take place all over the US, led not only by me, but by core team members and teachers and youth who join SJSA and host their own workshops.
How many students have completed the program?
We have had hundreds of students and adults attend workshops and created quilt blocks. Their collaborative art quilts are now shown in exhibits and quilt shows across the United States.
Was it hard to get the guys to engage in a traditionally female art form?
For some of the guys who participate in workshops, it takes little extra encouragement. But because the art quilts themselves are so powerful to see, most of the guys are very willing to make a block. So they create an artistic statement about what concerns them most.
With all of the stories to tell and discussion of issues going on at SJSA, how do students decide on a topic for a quilt block or for a stand-alone quilt?
The workshops begin with me opening the conversation and asking participants to search themselves and decide for themselves what they are passionate about. I always want to hear from the participants about what one thing they would like to change about their world, their school, their family, their church, their friends if they could. So I want to know what makes them worry, what makes them sad, what makes them happy, what makes them proud, what they want to share by using their “artist voice” through the quilt block.
What is the process from thought to completed quilt?
A workshop participant creates a quilt block using one 15- by 15-inch block and colorful fabric and fabric glue. The block details a picture or statement that the artivist wants to speak to the viewer. Then we mail the quilt blocks to embroidery volunteers; they hand stitch the fabric design with colorful and beautiful thread. The embroidery volunteer is usually a middle aged or older lady who embellishes the original design by adding gorgeous thread, beads or other items to the quilt block to amplify the original artivists message. When completed, the embroidery volunteer then mails the block back to me.
Once I receive the blocks back, I choose which blocks to piece into one quilt top (usually 20 blocks). Colleen Haraden (an SJSA Core Team Member and a scientist) will piece together a quilt top as well. Once the quilt top is pieced, the top is given over to Nancy Williams who “long arms” the quilt as the final step. Nancy has a machine with which she sews the quilt top (20 assorted blocks from the workshops), the middle cotton layer “batting”, and the quilt back. She uses her artistic talent to creatively stitch the 3 layers together spelling messages in her stitches and turning the art quilt into an amazing piece of modern fiber art!
Is there something special that students gain by creating with their hands?
Students are inherently creative. Many times, simply having materials and opportunities to speak their minds from their lived experiences is empowering. Students follow the block that they made, seeing it become part of a collective voice in an art quilt. So students watch their quilt blocks go from creation to hanging in amazing art galleries and exhibits crisscrossing the United States! Then follow on Instagram and show his/her work to friends, family and teachers for many, many years to come.
What do you hope students will take away from the program? What do they learn about who they are by making art?
I hope that students learn to speak about issues they feel strongly about in a productive way so they can “find his/her voice” in art quilting just as I did at 17 years old. Then I want students to understand the power of collective action and collaboration. So I want them to bond with and get to know the older lady who embroidered their block. I want to facilitate mentoring and a sense of belonging and community when participating in workshops and making art. Students who may not excel academically can find their talent creating art, speaking to people in a powerful way.
Describe the collaboration between students and embroidery volunteers. Why send the blocks out to volunteers for embroidery?
Typically, embroidery volunteers are middle aged or older white women; they may have never had a one-on-one interaction with an inner city teen or young adult. Many of our embroidery volunteers live in rural areas. So they do not have opportunities to engage teens from inner cities or LGBT teens or teens born into poverty or from gang-infested communities.
Sometimes it comes as a great shock and a great joy for teens and young adults who may be feeling marginalized to learn that there are caring and supportive adults who want to see their art, hear their concerns and help them perfect their quilt blocks so that their voices can be heard and their art admired in a collaborative effort. Healing happens when humans work together. Then we learn that, at the core, we are all part of the same race, the human race. That is where understanding and kindness can grow between people who work together through collaborative art quilting.
Have you kept in touch with your first students? How many of them are still quilting? Making art with a message? Have any taken up teaching?
Through Instagram, I stay connected with many of my workshop participants and learn where they are headed after high school. Many times, students use their workshop experiences and art quilt pictures from art galleries as part of their college applications. I am always happy to hear from students and enjoy seeing them continue to grow. Sometimes students come to speak at art gallery openings.
What is the sewing studio space like at SJSA? Where does the magic happen?
SJSA is an “e – workshop!” Our space is wherever the students and young adults are located. We take the workshops everywhere and anywhere: schools, churches, jails, libraries. We need just a few tables, chairs and folks who want to discuss creating positive change in our society. Our sewing studio is at Nancy Williams long arm studio – in Emeryville, CA. And it is equipped with every type of sewing tool imaginable! So we are really blessed to have Nancy on the core team.
What tools and supplies contribute the most to the students’ completion of their projects?
Fabric, scissors and glue 🙂
How can people help further the goals of SJSA?
We are also looking for donations- ranging from sewing machines to fabric. Additionally, we are always interested in grant and exhibit opportunities. Direct monetary donations on our website are also really helpful. Teachers who want to host a workshop to engage their students can contact us on our website!
Learn more about Social Justice Sewing Academy
Sign up to embroider a block!
Interview posted December 2018
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