In early September, in 2017, a devastating Category Five hurricane, Hurricane Irma, swept the islands in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria followed in late September, destroying approximately 90% of the island infrastructure including the Dominica, British and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).
Following the hurricanes, in December of 2017, I spent a month doing recovery work in Saint Thomas, in the USVI, as a part of an emergency response team. I went back to Saint Thomas for the rebuild phase of the project in July 2018. My work involved talking to homeowners, assessing damage to homes, and hands-on recovery/rebuild work. By hand, we tugged dumpsters of debris up hills, driveways, and flights of stairs. We deconstructed roofs, walls, sheds, and sometimes entire homes, and then rebuilt each of them. We spent hours inside homes removing mold, damaged electronics, furniture, and personal items.
After working long hours every day, we went back to our base, where we came together for meetings to discuss our work. Many volunteers expressed whirlwinds of emotions as they discussed the devastation they encountered at their sites. But in our unity, we found solace when navigating destruction and wreckage.
I acutely recall a conversation at a café with a little girl who called Saint Thomas her home. I asked her about her experience battling the hurricane. Her response, however, did not recount a battle at all. It was in the embracing, she said, that she endured the hurricane. While many young residents on the island of Saint Thomas seek to move to the U.S. for college, this little girl said to me, “Yes, it was hard. It was death staring us into our eyes. But I have never seen the island come together like this ever before. I can never feel alone, even if I want to, here. And I wouldn’t give this up for any American Dream.”
When working in the USVI, we constantly bade farewell to rotating volunteers. Volunteers gave goodbye speeches, and almost each one spoke of a sense of belonging and community that they felt on-site and on the island in general.
This community seemed unique to the land; however, the feeling is not foreign to other places. It always exists around us.
Transitioning from this world to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I have tried to find and create my own intentional community. As a student worker for SAIC at Homan Square in North Lawndale, a major chunk of my work resembles my efforts in the USVI. Work in North Lawndale includes community assessments, safety concerns, rebuilding, and service design. Every year, SAIC at Homan Square, hosts a Day of Service, where the entire SAIC community comes together to serve North Lawndale through on-site projects like mural restoration, painting, gardening, and more. In a few hours, students form bonds and memories and lose a track of time, in a place that only offers joy.
There is an underlying notion, however, that draws a big student group to make time for a day like this, beyond the desire to serve. SAIC is constantly trying to address issues of community and inclusiveness. Events like the Day of Service give students the chance to explore feelings of isolation and reconsider “belonging” in the urban space of Chicago.
Working with SAIC at Homan Square has allowed me to find community. When I walk into the North Lawndale building, I am greeted by a sense of familiarity that makes this place feel more like a home. The work is about enriching that sense of home. Home, indubitably, is not only a physical but also an emotional entity.
My first time feeling truly connected to SAIC at Homan Square was at an art and community development project called ‘Oaks of North Lawndale,’ where we replanted the community’s urban forest using shovel heads. These shovel heads were repurposed from gun or weapon waste, in collaboration with artist Pedro Reyes. I sat down around a table with fellow SAIC students, and together, we wrote our prayers and wrapped them around the gun metal, to melt them along with the rest. We shared anecdotes with one another that we wrote about in our prayer notes. It was meditative and cathartic to share these feeling with new friends.
“It is one thing to sit in a class, and talk about art and work, but another to engage in action that no theory can match,” Reyes said. Painting murals and walls, going on walks and neighborhood tours, planting trees, with the support of this place, has allowed me to find a voice that I often find when I travel. All these choices bring meaning to my work that is often taught in a vacuum.
Other student-led initiatives at SAIC embody a similar desire to build community through collaboration. Students share insights that aim to make SAIC more welcoming and accessible with the strategic planning committees at SAIC. Erica Wang (MA Art Therapy 2019), a recipient of SAIC’s Compassion and Belonging Grant, is developing a Design Collective to engage the SAIC community in discussion and workshops on inclusion and accessibility in fashion, through which she will tailor individual ambitions to reality. Art and Technology Studies Assistant Professor, Allie n Steve Mullen, and Emilio Williams (MFA 2019, Writing) are helping to highlight the challenges and artistic talents of young LGBTQ artists in their partnership with The Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP).
“SAIC has many resources, and our representation here can make these issues and concerns so much more visible, only to create more community,” Bonsai Bermudez, co-founder and executive artistic director of YEPP, shared.
Evidently, everyone seeks a sense of community. Finding it means extending ourselves into world beyond our walls. In service, we find community.