Building People Power

Barack and Michelle Obama
8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, $350 ($50 donated to Kentucky Jobs With Justice)

By guest writer, Attica Scott, Kentucky Jobs With Justice Coordinator

I’m in DC this inaugural weekend and thinking about what this moment in history means. For two days, I sat in meetings of the National Organizers Alliance thinking about how Obama’s election is helping to advance our movements for human rights and social justice. When I see the future first family, I see community and culture. But then I walk outside and I see overwhelming amounts of fanaticism and I get concerned about what we are building power for.

Are we creating an environment that will set up Obama for failure? Will we turn our backs on him when he cannot solve all of our problems like toxins from nuclear weapon waste being dumped into the water supply of towns in New Mexico and causing cancer to its residents? Or are we building a new kind of power that demands that those of us who consider ourselves organizers hold Mr. Obama just as accountable as we do all other elected officials?

As a non-profit organization, we at Kentucky Jobs With Justice cannot engage in partisan politics. But that means we need to intensify our electoral organizing year-round in a way that says to folks that we need you involved on the regular. That we are moving from this “moment” to building “movements.”

I think that what this moment means is that we are called to rebuild and redefine community organizing. Rebuild in a way that maintains the enthusiasm that was created during the Obama campaign and acknowledges that organizing takes many different forms. Redefine in a way that recognizes the complementary nature of new forms of on-line organizing and deep-rooted ways of building relationships. It is up to us to do the hopeful work that leads to change in our communities every single day.

Kentucky Jobs With Justice
1800 W Muhammad Ali Blvd, Suite 2E
Louisville KY 40203
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‘Climate Change on Canvas’ at UN conference

As excited as I was to be a part of the Oxfam “Climate Change on Canvas” project, I was disappointed to hear outcomes from UN the conference left something to be desired.   Theo Ratcliff of Oxfam International reported, “The conference in Poznan was meant to be a key milestone between the start of negotiations in Bali last year and their conclusion at Copenhagen next year. But it has exposed a shameful lack of progress. By now, developed nations were meant to have outlined their plans for emissions reductions, finance and technology; they have failed to do so.”

I heard a similar report on NPR, which described failure between wealthy and developing countries to agree on collaborative efforts to fund and otherwise positively affect climate change (such as the Adaption Fund).   A reporter for the San Fransisco Chronicle summed up the conference with, “…they came, they talked and they departed. And that’s about it.”

For a glimpse of the conference in review on a lighter note, check out pictures of the “Climate Change on Canvas Project on the Oxfam flickr page.   I was truly impressed with the Oxfam initiative to engage artists, students and community groups in this public awareness campaign.   They get a spot in my top 5 nonprofit groups.

‘Climate Change on Canvas’

48″ x 72″ oil on canvas

I am so incredibly honored to publish this post. This enormous painting was commissioned by my favorite kind of client, a nonprofit organization. I was selected by Oxfam America to create an image that represents the connection between climate change and poverty. The work will also represent Oxfam America’s Climate Change on Canvas project at the next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Poznan, Poland in December, 2008.

Oxfam America is an international relief and development organization that creates lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. The goal of the Climate Change on Canvas project is to use artwork and visual imagery to challenge the UN delegates to recognize the effects of climate change on the world’s poorest communities. Lacking sufficient resources, poor communities are least prepared to adapt to the most severe impacts of climate change. To learn more about Oxfam’s climate change campaign, visit

Oxfam America is just one of many Oxfam International affiliates who will be creating canvases for this project. Similar works of art will travel from all over the world created by professional artists, unknown artists and members of developing communities to be exhibited at the UN conference, representing a unified global movement around climate change and poverty. This piece will go to Poland and come back to the US where Oxfam plans to use art as a mobilization tool around climate change in 2009.

You should know that Oxfam is also looking for similar works from art students from around the country. If you are interested in learning more about this component of the project, email Oxfam’s Lead Student Organizer, Gabriel Barreras, at gbarreras[at]oxfamamerica[dot]org.

Thanks to Oxfam staff for contributing content for this post.

Quote for Martin Luther King Day

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

So who made that sweater you bought dad for Christmas?

18″ x 24″ oil painting on canvas, SOLD
See all artwork available for sale.

It’s a beautiful scene, isn’t it? Maybe for most, but for me personally, looking out my window and seeing a fresh blanket of snow does not make me think joyful and serene thoughts of the winter season. Instead I imagine opening my front door to step into a life-size freezer that stings my skin and drys my contacts to my eyeballs. I usually stand at my window and try to enjoy the white landscape from the comforts of my heated apartment until the chilling, drafty air seeps through the window to get me.

My distaste for winter had me knitting thick scarves for friends and family as Christmas gifts, motivated by the strange personal responsibility I feel to protect my loved ones’ well-being from the harsh elements. But as usual, time ran short and more of my yarn was still in a ball, not knitted in rows. I’ve turned to the web to supplement the goods I couldn’t produce myself, but with the great disadvantage of specifically looking for items made under fair working conditions.

Earlier this week I got a thorough update on sweatshops on this NPR program. An independent factory inspector and other industry experts laid out the various components of the industry including cheaper, more loosely regulated overseas labor, market transparency and socially responsible alternatives. I then found a couple especially worthy resources to share with you.

If you aspire to be an armed consumer at all times, consider the back-pocket-sized “The Better World Shopping Guide” for yourself or as a gift. The comprehensive buyer’s companion is a directory that ranks companies based on their commitment to social and environmentally conscious business practices.

Too busy to look up a company’s ranking? Go straight to a retailer that professes fair practices in its name, “No Sweat.” Yoga pants, hoodies, jeans, screen printed shirts and yes, scarves are available at very reasonable prices. If you have to venture out into that gigantic outdoor freezer, at least you can say your body heat is being guarded by garments produced under humane and fair working conditions.

Happy 89th Birthday to Nelson Mandela

Today is anti-apartheid activist and former South African president, Nelson Mandela‘s, 89th birthday. I guess last night’s TV airing of “In My Country” was no coincidence.

If any one is interested, I would love to take on a portrait commission of Mandela and make a contribution to his foundation or any of the many directly related or ancillary organizations continuing the work of his legacy.

“In My Country” is a must see

I just finished watching this wonderful movie:

“Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is a Washington Post journalist. His editor provocatively sends him to South Africa to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, in which the perpetrators of murder and torture on both sides during Apartheid are invited to come forward and confront their victims. By telling the unvarnished truth and expressing contrition, they may be granted amnesty…”

The film is a beautiful balance of an emotionally charged factual history with personal struggles in establishing new perceptions of race, and of complicated love. You have to see it!

With 12 million refugees worldwide, there’s plenty you can do

7″ x 9″ watercolor
See all artwork available for sale.

Per a request from a dear friend who works with refugees in Columbus, Ohio, I finished an earlier sketch of this image for World Refugee Day. But instead of reiterating what I had previously said, I asked her to share something with you about the clients she works closely with:

“Of the roughly 12 million refugees and asylees worldwide, less than 1% will ever be resettled to a permanent home outside of the refugee camp. Of those lucky few, the struggle changes from waiting in line for grain and water to waiting in line to enroll in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and apply for Social Security cards.

Successful acculturation training for new comers is vital to starting their new life in the US. From teaching which household cleaners are for dishes and which are for the floors, to demonstrating the use of a vacuum cleaner: dedicated volunteers are needed to help welcome and educate America’s newest immigrants. See Church World Service for ides of how you can help! (

For those left behind, safety and security are of utmost concern. One concern of refugee women is the unsafe land just beyond the camp perimeter. While collecting firewood, young girls are vulnerable to soldiers and locals who take the opportunity to rape those who are unaccompanied. In response to this issue of security, Solar Cookers International ( has sought a unique solution to reduce the time spent searching for fuel.”

Colleen Rosshirt
Community Refugee and Immigration Services

“Kentucky Remembers!,” closing community celebration

After extensive event planning by our delegates, the camp participants, staff and community members celebrated our accomplishments at Noble Park in Paducah on Saturday. Several of those interviewed by the students over the past three weeks joined us as well as a TV crew and a local newspaper reporter. I was especially excited for the delegates to unveil their mural to our guests and the media.

Two students from the painting committee spoke about the mural design, which included vignettes of places they had visited and concepts and illustrations of things they felt were imperative in their vision of an ideal community. I could see the how pleased the delegates were with the response of jaws dropping when we pulled the sheet from the work of art.

It was amazing to see this camp make a positive impact on the kids in such a short amount of time. I’m so glad they’re people in this world (especially from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights) who invest so much of themselves in making experiences like this possible for people who need it most.

More Kentucky Remembers! camps are still in progress in other parts of the state. If the other camps have compiled as much material as my camp has, the textbook on human rights to be created from all of this work will be a thick read rich with personal and unique content enriching the lives of students in public school throughout the state.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” our last day

It’s hard to believe what we have accomplished in 5 days!   This group of students have amassed an impressive audio archive of interviews with members of their own community who are of a generation safeguarding firsthand experiences of human rights struggles, which these kids would not have otherwise known so intimately.   They have written about their research, documented the people and places they’ve seen with pictures, and translated all of this information into their own visual interpretation on canvas.

My usual work is of course a one-woman show, so it was amazing to see our 4′ x 6′ mural fill with color faster than I could keep track.   The students were devoted and incredibly impressed with their own work.   We also discovered strengths among each delegate.   Some people were on detail duty, focusing on the text, some were better at design, and then we had a few color experts who often consulted on color temperature contrast and value.

At the end of the day, we had a finished polished masterpiece, an enormous amount of historical material to contribute to the upcoming Kentucky Remembers! textbook, written a Paducah/Murray theme song, and planned a community celebration for the next day, which you will hear about very soon…

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 4

I’m learning the power of small groups. The Kentucky Remembers staff is finding the students are far more productive when we break them up in smaller committees. Although one of the committees is specifically devoted to the mural, everyone has been rotating in to help. Things are really coming together and the painting is about 80% finished.

We contacted several local reporters today and hope that a Murray news station will stop by the church tomorrow to see us in action. There’s also some potential for an article about Saturday’s closing celebration.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 3

Wow! We got a lot done today. When we started this morning, only half of the sketch was finished. What I’ve been most pleased with is that I’m finally beginning to see most of the students get attached to their work, taking pride in what they’re producing. I think they’re truly surprising themselves. There were several times today that the painting committee members stepped back to look at the mural and said in astonishment, “Oh my gosh, this is REALLY good!”

A few of them even began to get a little possessive of their artwork, which is a switch from the disengaged attitudes we started with. Students have been rotating from other committees to contribute to the mural, and “my” committee/painting committee has made it very clear that the others can only help if they’re “really serious.”

We’re hoping to get some newspaper and TV attention either during our last 2 days, or at Saturday’s community celebration where the students will be unveiling the mural and presenting parts of their audio interviews, photos, and essays. They will be contacting the media themselves. I really am proud of them!

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 2

Today was the last day we worked on pre-canvas activities. We started by combating cabin fever developed from sitting under the florescent lights of the 9th Street Church if Christ for several weeks by playing kickball in the church parking lot. Working up a sweat definitely made the slide presentation of other artists’ work (such as Diego Rivera and Robert Shutterly) a much calmer experience.

Then we revisited sketching by taking turns modeling for each other for short 30 second poses. I told the students not to worry about “getting it right.” The idea was just to get their hands moving and something on paper without getting sucked into the details or attached to the outcome. I said they could even wad up their drawings after each pose if they didn’t want anyone to see it. Here are a few of the sketches that were volunteered for display (the first one is of me in a teapot pose; yes, I’m lame, I know).

Shortly after lunch we had to get down to business and use all of these flowing creative juices on the mural. Right now we are in the process of completing the outline on the canvas. We’ll begin painting tomorrow, so progress shots will soon follow, along with an explanation of how their design illustrates what they have learned over the last 2 weeks about the struggle for human rights.

And, as promised, here is one of the Frankenstein animals we created during yesterday’s drawing exercise. This is a dove-frog-cow combo.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 1

My first day with the students at the Paducah camp was a bit of a whirlwind experience to say the least. To all of the middle and high school teachers out there, you are a phenomenal breed of human beings! Attention spans are like butterflies and trying to hold onto those short attention spans feels similar to grabbing for a fist full of air. Nonetheless, we started the “mural week” off to a strong start.

After playing “Ky Remembers Win, Lose or Draw,” we warmed up with an exercise intended to get the students adjusted to working on a large scale, over the fear of “making a mistake,” prepared to work collaboratively, and to simply get them to laugh. I had each student pick a piece of paper out of a hat that had a type of animal written on it. Then, they were given a sheet of butcher paper which had either “top,” “middle,” or “bottom” written in the corner.

They were to draw the portion of the animal that was given on their sheet of paper. So, for example, if my animal were a monkey, and my paper said “bottom,” I would draw monkey legs and a tail. We reconvened and pieced together our Frankenstein creatures. The outcome was quite comical, but I’ll have to share pictures of the final products with you later since I didn’t have a chance to take any at the time.

The staff, who have been with the students for weeks and worked with the last camp, tell me today was a success and we’re on the right path. Whew!

Kentucky Remembers! Project

This weekend I traveled to the far western end of Kentucky to facilitate the third week of one of five summer camps titled the “Kentucky Remembers! Project.”   A close friend, who spearheaded the project, via the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, asked me to participate in the Murray/Paducah camp as the artist leading a week long mural project.

The middle and high school students involved in each camp are charged with quite a hefty task of creating material for a textbook about the history of human rights, specifically in our state.   Apparently, there are no requirements in Kentucky public schools to cover monumental topics such as the civil rights movement, and unfortunately the freedom to omit these events has created a generation that knows little of historical events, which tremendously impacts their lives.

The “Kentucky Remembers! Project” requires students to spend a portion of their summer collecting material for the textbook, which will be used in the classrooms in 2009, and will include material from:

  • audio-recorded interviews, as guided by oral historians, with community members who lived through much of the civil rights movement
  • video and still photo documentation of field trips to historical places of interest
  • a collaborative mural illustrating their “ideal community” (which will ultimately hang in a public venue such a library)

This week long commitment has landed me in a dorm room at Murray State University, with little to no time to paint for you.   Instead, you’ll be following 17 students, 3 staff members, and myself through the process of creating a large scale painting that is the culmination of 2 weeks worth of face-to-face, hands-on historical research.   This is the storytelling method of passing down history of the old days meets new media of the 21st century.   These “kids” will be posting podcasts, editing freedom songs they wrote themselves, uploading videos on YouTube, and showcasing it all on their blog (which is uber new and very much in the works, so bear with us).

This is truly a unique opportunity for students to have a tremendous impact on their peers.   How many high school students can say to a middle schooler, “Hey, I wrote that book you’re using in history class?”