On May 16th I set off on my road trip from Seattle to the Bay Area with my trusty dog, Reginaldo, a few books on flags, camping gear, my back up sewing machine and too many shoes. I always travel with too many shoes. I had a fantastic, peaceful drive down the 101 sleeping in quiet beach towns in Oregon and then under magical ancient Redwood trees with a final night in Mill Valley to help ease the transition into the craziness of the Bay.
Yet again, the reason for my return to the Bay was all about Flags. Interface Gallery in Oakland approached me to do a social practice / public art piece in the Temescal neighborhood. The project goals were to work with Oakland International High School students and teachers for their post session class (a three week, end of the year intensive) to design 12 banners that would temporarily replace the ones on the light posts on Telegraph Ave. The aim was to have these flags/banners make visible the stories of these students, who most of which are recent immigrants and some refugees.
We applied for a matching grant with the East Bay Fund for Artists and got it!! Then we fundraised for the matching amount and met 84 % of our goal.
We had 25 students ranging from Freshmen to Seniors. 2 amazing teachers, 1 volunteer and me, the flag dork. The students were asked to contribute to the website with a very active blog, an instagram account as part of their assignments and sketchbook where they worked their ideas out and did writing assignments. As we finalized our banner designs to scale of the street poles (the flags measure 4ft. by 2ft.), students worked collaboratively to create one image that spoke to their collective identity.
For most of the students, English is their very recent second language. In our planning discussions, the teachers warned me, language would be a major factor in all aspects of the project. I nodded my head and thought I totally knew what they meant. Into week 2, I could not help but think about my parents and what they must have been like when they came to this country as teenagers from Cuba. They were about the same age as the students involved in this project and also had limited knowledege of the English language, and having lost everything and now navigating a new country with its own set of challenges. I was especially proud of the student groups who despite their language barriers with each other, created very strong designs. It was very gratifying to see the power of the visual language at work.
I embarked on this project thinking I understood that this was not about me. That I was a facilitator. Not so. It is a tricky balance to come into a community and be all "lets make my project you guys!!! Come on! We have a grant. Flags! Right! Right? By the way, nice meeting you now lets het to work." Before the end of week one, I was surprised/embarassed by how sensitive I felt to the student's bewilderment about this project. Three weeks is a short amount of time to gain that much trust and to ask for so much in return. I snapped out of the funk and focused on finding ways to engage them. My co-teachers had everything to do with bridging this gap.
If anyone knows me or how I work, I have the habit of creating these insanely ambitious projects that always underestimate time, drive me to near insanity and usually some sort of physical pain in the process, peppered with a few anxiety attacks....but regardless I always deliver what I set out to do. ALWAYS. This project was very ambitious. I would never do it the same again for the sake of everyone involved but despite how manic it felt at the time, I am utterly grateful for the opportunity, the willingness and vulnerability of the students, and the support I had from the community and my friends. I sincerely hope I get the opportunity to do it again and again.
Here is some press we got through out our project:
Interview by Katherine Rae Mondo
East Bay Express!
Check out our website: MYSTORYISMYFLAG.COM