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When art and social justice collide

On a Monday afternoon, Colleen Sears received a message from an individual who attended The Artivism Project that ran on campus earlier that day. That person, a teacher in the East Brunswick school district, said that her mindset on the topic discussed “had been transformed.”

It was the compliment of a lifetime for Sears, assistant professor of music and chair of the department. She created The Artivism Project in 2015 to address social justice issues through artistic mediums. The cross-disciplinary programming has become a way for the TCNJ community and beyond to discuss sensitive topics through a different — and often creative — lens.

“My goal in doing this work is to break out of those entrenched, solidified opinions and have people engage in a shared artistic experience,” Sears says. “It’s a way to enter into a dialogue about these topics and yield new understandings in a way that is outside the typical narrative.”

Projects have included an examination of equity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina using Ted Hearne’s composition Katrina Ballads; an art gallery exhibit about water, climate change, and the environment; and a collaboration between TCNJ’s wind ensemble, chorale, and choir, who performed Rollo A. Dilworth’s musical interpretation of the poem Weather by Claudia Rankine.

This year’s iteration included:

  • a guided exploration of Carrie Mae Weems’ art exhibit, The Usual Suspects, which examines black bodies and stereotyping;
  • a lecture recital with Brandi Diggs, visiting assistant professor of music and coordinator of vocal studies, about how the singing of Black art songs can be used as a vehicle for healing racial trauma for singers of color;
  • and a performance by the wind ensemble, conducted by Eric Laprade, featuring Of Our New Day Begun by Omar Thomas, which was written in honor of those lost during the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in 2015.

“A lot of these topics are tough to talk about, but we need to,” Sears says. “The only way we move the needle on social justice issues is by continuing to engage.”

And while the goal isn’t necessarily to change minds, it does try to open them. “I’m not naïve in thinking an exhibit is going to change the world,” Sears says. “But we spent four hours with that teacher from East Brunswick, and they felt transformed.”

Learn more about The Artivism Project from TCNJ’s School of the Arts and Communications.

— David Pavlak