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Upper School Student Voices—a student-leadership group that addresses topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice—explored activism in art in two Martin Luther King Jr. Day assemblies this month.

In the first assembly last week, student leaders presented a virtual gallery filled with paintings, poems, photographs, songs, and more, created by activists in each decade from the 1950s through today. They explored a diverse range of art from Elizabeth Catlett’s 1952 painting Sharecropper, to Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the L.A. riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song "Alright," which addresses institutionalized racism and police brutality in America. Student Voices leaders encouraged everyone to "talk with your friends or your family about the art you listen to or make. What does it mean? Who does it include? Who does it exclude? Think about how every artist in [the] virtual gallery used their art as activism to continue the legacy of Dr. King, and reflect on how you can become an activist with your own creative expressions."

Dr. Jennifer Lena

Above: Dr. Jennifer Lena speaks to students over Zoom during the follow-up Martin Luther King Jr. Day Assembly.

The second assembly (which took place this week) was a dialogue about Dr. King's legacy with Dr. Jennifer Lena, author and associate professor of Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Lena is also the niece of the late art activist Benny Andrews, whose 1966 oil painting Flag Day was highlighted in the Student Voices gallery.

"[My uncle's] emphasis on using your work to advocate for those who are being systematically excluded from the arts had a big impact on me," Dr. Lena reflected. "In particular, [I was influenced by] this idea that there are critical interventions that artists can make in the political and social sphere."

Dr. Lena, whose research focuses on art classification and genre, also shed light on how white supremacy has created a distinction throughout history between that which is categorized as art or not art. The work of artists like Benny Andrews, she said, have been vital to breaking down barriers, dispelling power from gatekeeping art institutions, and combatting false cultural narratives of what can be called art.

When one student asked what young people can do to promote inclusion and diversity, Dr. Lena answered, "One of the things that seems to be in deficit for all of us is the ability to tolerate conflict and to find ways to have productive conversations. We should allow ourselves to process the feelings of shame when we make a mistake in a micro-interaction—right now, many of us are too quick to avoid those feelings. But I would love to see deeper investment in productive disagreement and respectful conflict resolution."