In a year of unprecedented changes that touched nearly all aspects of daily life, RISE AmeriCorps members at ArtForce Iowa are sharing their unique experiences and deeply personal stories about what change means to them. Their social justice art exhibit, #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change, officially launched on May 6 and features works of art from numerous youth artists.
The #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change project was inspired by the civil rights rallying cry “No Justice, No Peace”, which protests against and condemns police violence against Black community members. Since #KNOWJUSTICE is an educational exhibit, the “no” was changed to “know” signifying the aim to truly know what is needed for achieving justice in our society.
The exhibit creates a space for refugee and immigrant youth and the cultures and communities they represent. This year’s #KNOWJUSTICE exhibit took on special meaning for the RISE AmeriCorps members at ArtForce as they explored the dramatic changes that affect their lives. Unfinished and in process work is also included and can be seen throughout the exhibit, along with the theme of change.
For the first time in its six-year history, the event is taking place online due to the COVID-19 crisis, giving added significance to the subtitle “Know Change”. This new format increased attendance considerably, with nearly 3,000 people viewing the exhibit virtually compared to about 150 people in years past. The 2021 edition of #KNOWJUSTICE features the work of ArtForce Iowa’s four RISE AmeriCorps members: Kamaura Kim, Lana Baccam Paredes, Shel Paw, and Mar Blu Moo.
Kim, a first generation Hmong-American and member of the musical group First Gen, wrote and performed the song “Nco Txog Hmoob” about the challenges of leaving one’s homeland to come to the United States. She hopes it will raise awareness about the experience of living in Iowa as a young person from a different country and inspire others to learn about their own culture as she has.
Baccam Paredes emphasized the importance of the journey leading up to #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change, including reflections on past exhibits and group conversations about justice and change and what those ideas look like.
“It gives such a big platform for what seem to be little stories to share with the whole world. Our youth, we see them as little but they’re not. They are big and they are important,” Baccam Paredes said.
Mar Blu, or MB for short, is a photographer who designed his own short film, titled My Body is in Des Moines but My Heart is in My Home Country. Through his innovative artwork, MB is bringing attention to the atrocities committed against Karen people during the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. The Karen are an ethnic group residing mainly in Burma, however they have faced injustice and oppression and many have had to flee state violence in their country.
“I want to preserve the Karen culture in my life and in my photography. I want new generations to know about my culture and my history,” MB said. “For now it’s difficult because I see my people dying and it seems like most people don’t care about it.”
RISE members made brave artistic choices in their work, and the diversity of the art created in #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change is sure to make a lasting impact on the community. Simultaneously a personal and collaborative effort, the exhibit demonstrates the powerful vision shared by this team of youth artists. The RISE team at ArtForce advocates for continued support of youth artists, their stories, their work, and their healing.
Shel Paw hopes that her painting, Karen, and message will shed more light on the plight of Karen people and the refugees seeking safety from war and persecution in Myanmar.
“I hope whenever someone reads my artist statement that it spreads awareness of what is happening to Karen people,” she said. Shel also hopes to inspire young people to see that they can create and share their own art as a way to give back to the community.
Kim agrees, saying she wants more youth to make art, especially musical performances. “I hope this inspires youth to make music and perform what they love to do.”
Baccam Paredes encourages other community-based organizations to support and foster programs that promote youth empowerment and healing through the arts. She hopes that other young artists who see the exhibit will be empowered to make art that is personal and authentic.
“I hope young artists will continue to tell stories in a way that is not expected by the world. The story is for them, if it’s for others it’s a gift.”
ArtForce Iowa is very intentional about centering the voices of youth who have been marginalized by systems of oppression, and #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change is no exception. By sharing their stories, these courageous young artists are embodying the mission of RISE AmeriCorps to empower refugees and immigrants. Their art inspires and informs, evoking a visceral response and allowing the audience to learn about ethnic groups and bring attention to what is happening in the world at this very moment. The ArtForce team exemplified the teamwork model that is crucial to the RISE program.
“I’ve never seen it take root in this way. These were truly labors of love, we were all helping each other,” said Yvette Zaród Hermann, Arts Outreach Educator at ArtForce Iowa.
Baccam Paredes seconded that sentiment, saying “It is such an achievement to make it happen, have an online event, and reach more people. That’s the bittersweetness of having the exhibit during a pandemic.”
Thanks to ArtForce and the RISE team, a new generation of artists has a space to share their stories, to support each other, to heal, and call for justice.
Shel Paw summed up the positive impact of the project’s journey and the final exhibit saying, “This was the perfect year to focus on change.”
New artwork has been added each week throughout the month of May, allowing guests to come back and experience the exhibit anew. It will remain open and free to view for the foreseeable future.
Visit #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change online
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
From dance to painting to puppet-making, ArtForce Iowa’s weekly workshops are helping young people across Iowa heal through creativity. By combining discussions about mental health with hands-on art sessions, youth from underserved populations are learning to express themselves while building resiliency.
The non-profit organization’s workshops benefit refugees, immigrants, and first-generation Americans who are survivors of violence and crime. Adolescents involved in the juvenile or family court systems are another focus. The young artists, aged 12-19, participate in weekly virtual calls where RISE AmeriCorps members create a safe space to discuss emotions and set art-making goals.
Yvette Zaród Hermann, ArtForce Iowa’s arts outreach educator, says the team has been able to head-off mental health crises by either being there for the young artists or alerting others about emergencies. One workshop participant, who will remain anonymous, has benefitted from the extra support amidst her own crisis. Hermann says she suffers from self-harm and other severe mental health issues, which has placed her in a treatment facility away from home. Her father speaks an obscure dialect from the Burma, Thailand region which has made communication about his daughter’s recovery nearly impossible. Throughout the turmoil, she now has an arts community to confide in as well as an outlet for self-expression.
“She’s able to just draw with us and tell us everything that’s going on.” Hermann says. “It’s amazing for all of us because we all feel so grateful that we’re able to reach someone who the system has been trying to stuff down the cracks.”
The RISE AmeriCorps members are responsible for planning and facilitating the art workshops around social-emotional goals and trauma-informed practices. Hermann says the members write a mental health-related question of the day to foster discussion. An art therapist also works with the organization to help design certain interventions. For example, individuals who have experienced severe trauma are encouraged to use messy, free-form materials during their art sessions to avoid restrictions and promote healing.
After each workshop, the AmeriCorps members meet up and decide which students are in need of extra help in any way. Through this work, Hermann says the AmeriCorps members are learning the basics of case management in a loving, supportive way.
This year’s RISE AmeriCorps teams have especially resonated with the young people due to their age and understanding of social justice principles. Youth leadership has always been a goal in ArtForce Iowa’s eight years of existence. But Hermann says this year that vision has been realized. All four RISE AmeriCorps members are 19 - 22 years old and two members were previously students in Art Force Iowa’s programs.
“They come with their whole hearts and I think it’s really opened up the possibilities for our work.” Hermann says. “We’re able to learn more about young people’s lives when there are young people leading and there are less adults in the room.”