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New mural explores cultural identity and social justice

The collaborative art project, sponsored by Hillel, looks to bridge various cultural identities

Students wandering through the lower lobby of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center this week were invited to roll up their sleeves and open their minds to a community mural that encapsulates the diversity of cultural experiences on campus.

The project, sponsored by Brown-RISD Hillel, was open for contribution Monday through Thursday and was developed to encourage students to contemplate the question, “How does your cultural identity impact your visions and conceptions of social justice?”

The design incorporates personal writings, religious iconography and other words and symbols into a geometric quilt pattern, a kaleidoscopic pastiche created by more than 100 students over four days. Diana Gillon, a New York-based artist who orchestrates collaborative mural projects with communities in the U.S. and abroad, organized the painting on site.

“We thought a quilt was a beautiful way to show the combination of heritage and culture — all these different pieces coming together,” she said.

Sara Miller, Israel engagement fellow at Hillel, contacted Gillon after learning about her work with other Jewish communities. Though Hillel is a Jewish group, she said, its members are also interested in engaging with students of different faith backgrounds and no faith background.

“We’re a center for Jewish life on campus, but we’re also just a center for life on campus,” she said. “(The mural) is about cultural identity and social justice, and I think that’s something that most Brown students can identify with.”

Emily Braun ’13, an engagement intern at Hillel, was one of the students involved in the planning process. “As engagement interns, we organize events that bring students together on campus and help them engage with other Jewish students,” she said.

“We thought it would be such a great opportunity to work with an artist and do something collaborative in a central space,” said Alisa Kotler-Berkowitz, director of engagement at Hillel. The mural will be displayed in Hillel and several other locations around campus, she added.

“In America, everyone’s like ‘Social justice! Social justice!’ — but what are you really saying?” said Gillon. “I think (social justice) has to do with being fair to your community, being fair to your society and treating everyone in a respectable way.”

Text, scrawled into bright blue bands framing the mural,  revealed students’ approaches to “social justice” which varied between the political, spiritual and intensely personal. The responses seemed to operate in dialogue with one another.

“Experiences in my conservative church showed me the damage of homophobia,” wrote one student, a few inches away from a verse from the Gospel of Matthew.

“There are great conversations that happen during the creating of the artwork between people with different identities and different backgrounds,” Kotler-Berkowitz said. Some students stopped by for only 10 minutes, but others returned several times over the course of the week, she added.

Cynthia Abdallah, a visiting Fulbright Scholar from Kenya who teaches Swahili at the Center for Language Studies, contributed the Swahili words for peace, love, unity and together – “Amani, Umoja, Upendo and Pamoja.” Students also wrote in Hebrew, Spanish and Mandarin.

“Here we have people from very different places … The impact of Brown on my life culturally makes quite a difference,” Abdallah said. “It’s a new world.”


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