On a recent Saturday morning, a small group of art students met at a Maine College of Art (MECA) studio in downtown Portland. They got to work setting up different crafting stations and tables covered with art supplies - fabric scraps, feathers, crayons, hot glue – and displaying on the walls and tables questions and prompts about diversity and community.
“It’s called ‘Mend the Gap: A Community Blanket,’” says one of the student organizers, Ashley Page.
As participants work on creating their individual quilt squares, they consider questions, such as ‘What does community mean to you?’ ‘What does community look like?’ ‘How do we grow community?’
“In thinking about those prompts, in the act of making, these kids and their adults and whoever else will be making little things to add to a larger blanket,” Page says.
The quilt squares will be stitched together into the titular community blanket as part of what’s being called “Resilience Week,” a series of events intended to promote diversity at MECA and in the surrounding community.
“The idea is basically just to have a week where we celebrate diversity, inclusion, equity and the students of color in the school, and make sure that they feel supported,” says MECA student Aminata Conte, who also helped organize the project.
Resilience week featured guest lecturers, performances, a dance party and movie screenings, all focused on promoting inclusion and diversity. The project was organized for a pretty straightforward reason: students said they needed it.
“So making sure that the students of color here at MECA are seen and heard and represented,” Page says, “and asking them, ‘What do they need from their school and from their community?’ as well as, ‘How can we best support each other?’”
The events were designed to start conversations, organizers say, and intended to appeal to a wide range of ages, and so were mostly free.
“This is our first annual Resilience Week, and we're hoping that it will become an inaugural event,” says Shiva Darbandi, the co-chair of MECA’s faculty Diversity Committee, and part of the planning group for Resilience Week.
“We've certainly had students of color, specifically, who have felt challenges imposed on them because of how they identify either racially or in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity, or in terms of religion, and they have found each other. They've created a community,” Darbandi says. “Now they're hoping that we can have dialogues around race and equity in a broader community, so we can bring in faculty and staff and other students, and I think race and equity dialogues is kind of a muscle that you have to build.”
The students not only expressed the need for these dialogues, they say they tackled much of the project on their own — from initial planning to social media outreach, to event set up and tear down.
“[Organizers] Alejandra [Cuadra] and Ashley [Page] and Athena [Lynch], specifically, were working through their winter break to make sure that this would be able to happen,” says Conte.
“This work is profound. It’s groundbreaking. It gives students an egalitarian role…it’s not what college as institutions are used to,” says Kelly Mcconnell, who served as a faculty advisor for Resilience Week.
McConnell, Who teaches a course called “Art For Social Change,” says students were, in some ways, on their own in putting Resilience Week together. “I’m recognizing now that I probably didn’t support them enough,” she says, later adding, “But I’m ready to say ‘Hey, what can we do to support you next year?’”
Going forward, students and faculty want to make Resilience Week an annual tradition, despite a unique challenge: four of the five core student organizers of the series are graduating in the spring. But they say they’ve established a framework that future organizers can use.
“I hope that these themes and these things extend beyond just now and today and tomorrow,” says Page. “I hope that people are able to walk away with collective understanding a little bit more of their community and who they interact with every day.”
The Mend the Gap Community Blanket will be displayed at the Resilience of Diversity Exhibit beginning Feb. 15 at the Maine College of Art.