“Heavy Blanket” with Kien Nguyen
This project was a collaboration with young men in detention facilities in West Philadelphia and outside the city in a longer-term facility. A curriculum was written with teaching artist Ellissa Collier to connect the experiences of four groups of young men who have experienced great amounts of intolerance in American society. The curriculum explored the experiences of young people from the Japanese American community, American Indian community, the African American community with a focus on Emmitt Till and the Puerto Rican immigrant community in the US between the 1950s-1980s. Youth in the program created dynamic art projects that connected these groups and led to the design of this mural. For more about this project, please read the words from the dedication below:
The seed for this mural was born from a conversation I had with a young Mexican girl in Texas. She told me that my family’s history- a story of Japanese Internment, lost homes, jobs and schools leading to a five year desert imprisonment reminded her of her own family . . . Fears she has that she’ll lose her parents if they “get sent away for being Mexican,” she said. The conversation was another reminder of the cultures in this country who face intolerance on a constant basis.
The topic of tolerance was our guiding light when planning this mural. How does our society judge it’s own people? What are the consequences of those judgements? When working with young men at the JJSC and St. Gabes, we all asked ourselves, “How am I perceived in my community and how do I perceive others?” Ultimately, the young men considered, beyond the judgment of anyone else, how they themselves want to be in the world.
The mural came from a curriculum taught at St. Gabes, the JJSC and here at the Smith Playground Rec Center. The lessons explore diverse cultures in America’s past and present that have experienced intolerance to extreme degrees. Images, both positive and negative from these cultures’ histories connect to create this heavy blanket.
One evening at St. Gabes, a couple of the young men told us of the struggle they have each night falling asleep. That they just had too much on their minds- worrying about the impact their detention has had on their families. Thinking about their future, wondering about the next steps in their path. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my father earlier in the day, who had also been having a hard time falling asleep, his mind heavy with his own thoughts and worries. And then it made me think of the young girl in Texas, and the thoughts she was dealing with at the young age of 9. So,the young man in this mural was designed to show that universal moment of reflection and thought, the moment at night when sleep doesn’t come.
Our worries may be different, but our wishes are basically the same. Another young man at St. Gabes, after learning about the Japanese Internment adamantly expressed that “It doesn’t matter the race. Everyone just wants the same thing. We all just want to be free.”
Free from intolerance, free from judgment inflicted upon us and judgment that we inflict upon others. Free from the heavy blanket of intolerance that has covered our nation for far too long. Free to celebrate and live out the unique and wonderful aspects of our personhood that we all carry inside.