By Kathryn Coulibaly, NJEA staff
Kelly Sullivan, a New Jersey native and pioneer in the field of collaborative art, has used her talents to inspire imagination and action in girls around the world through her Mighty Fingers Facing Change Project (MFFC). Sponsored by NJEA, Sullivan recently brought this powerful production to five New Jersey schools.
“We use art as a vehicle for empowerment, so that young people can know that their visions and thoughts matter, that they have the ability and right to express those thoughts and that they have the power to work toward those visions,” Sullivan says. “There is also an emphasis on the understanding that a rigid mind in an ever-changing world is a recipe for despair, and that we need to open our imaginations and our hearts to form stronger communities.”
The MFFC project includes creating a “super-self-portrait” and participating in a collaborative 10-foot FingerSmear® painting that Sullivan brought to each location for all of the students to participate in. New Jersey is not the only place Sullivan has worked. She has produced MFFC in 18 locations around the world including Uganda, Haiti, India, Guatemala, Spain and others. She is headed for China this month.
“We inspire young people to become explorers, and pilot their own ships, knowing that the currents may change,” Sullivan says.
NJEA Organizational Development staff person Michael Saffran visited Sullivan’s studio in Lambertville by chance and was struck by the impact of her work.
“Originally, I wanted to work with Kelly to develop a program for our annual Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference (SLC),” Saffran says. “I thought her project would be a way to build unity and create something that NJEA would be proud to display prominently at NJEA headquarters.”
At the 2017 SLC, thousands of members finger painted an image that combined NJEA’s core values of unity, pride, excellence, the value of universal public education, and diversity. That FingerSmear® was featured on the cover of the October 2017 NJEA Review with now-Gov. Phil Murphy.
But at the same time, Saffran and Sullivan wanted to develop a program that brought Mighty Fingers Facing Change to as many students as possible. Working with NJEA Communications staffer Christy Kanaby, they developed guidelines and a budget to maximize the impact of the program.
“We inspire young people to become explorers, and pilot their own ships, knowing that the currents may change.”
“As educators, we know that when budgets are tight, art is one of the first things to be cut,” Saffran says. “We worked with Kelly to develop a program that would work for our members, and we scraped together funding for five schools across the state to participate.”
At SLC, Sullivan presented three electives to members about the program and members were encouraged to apply to win a visit from Sullivan. In October, schools in Absecon, Jersey City, Hillsborough, Clinton, and Hamilton Township (Mercer County) were selected.
“Each of these schools had special considerations that made them very attractive to us,” Sullivan says. “For some, the program would be run only for girls who struggled to find their place in the school environment. For others, it would be for students who had recently immigrated to the United States or who had been identified by teachers and staff as likely to benefit from the art lesson as well as the lesson in self-expression.”
Beginning in early February, Sullivan, her assistant Becka Warfel, Saffran and other NJEA staff descended on the schools armed with acrylic paint, paper bags and bundles of Handi Wipes.
The first school was in Absecon, a community hit hard by the closing of five of neighboring Atlantic City’s 12 casinos in 2014. Absecon, home to many of the employees who lost their jobs as a result of those closings, has struggled economically and culturally since then. As English teacher Barbara Horner described it, “there are not many art resources available to students outside the school, so students are very dependent on us to bring these programs to them.”
As she would at each of the schools, Sullivan faced a quiet, uncertain group of 25 students at the beginning of her presentation. And, as she would see repeated at each school, by the end of the day, the students were laughing, engaged, and a little paint-splattered.
“We use art as a vehicle for empowerment, so that young people can know that their visions and thoughts matter, that they have the ability and right to express those thoughts and that they have the power to work toward those visions.”
Sullivan would share her story about how art changed her life and how allowing oneself to be creative actually changes the brain. She encouraged the students to share what makes them unique.
Beginning with one side of a large brown paper bag, Sullivan guided the students through a visualization exercise that had them use markers to draw symbols and words that expressed themselves and their ideas. Student conversations ranged from discussing a chosen symbol that represented their character to sharing thoughts on the struggles they and their peers face in reaching their goals. They were asked about changes they would like to see in the world, and what kind of messages they would like to deliver to the district’s administration, the nation’s leaders, or girls on the other side of the world.
The students also had an opportunity to participate in “Abundance,” a FingerSmear® that has traveled around the world with Sullivan to all of the MFFC locations. In addition to the tactile experience of a FingerSmear, Sullivan also introduced the students to http://paint.team-an online, collaborative digital painting application developed by Sullivan and her partner Doug Moreland.
Following lunch, which was provided by the Absecon Education Association through an NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant, the students got down to work with the paint, and the results were powerful. At the end of the day, each student stood in front of the room, presented his or her painting, and completed the sentence, “With my Mighty Fingers, I will…” Students shared their professional and personal goals and loudly applauded their classmates.
“I’ve received nothing but positive feedback from the students, their parents, and teachers,” said Horner. “There is a noticeable change in each of the girls, a new-found confidence and happiness. They truly feel empowered.”
The students in Emily Litman’s class are English language learners who have recently arrived in the United States from Spanish-speaking countries. As a result, Litman and her colleagues, co-teacher Isela Brenes, and assistants Maria Torres and Virginia Osorio, spent a busy day translating for Sullivan as she led the students through the program. But the end result was powerful for everyone involved.
“I am beyond grateful that I had this opportunity to share today with my students, and I honestly can say that this was really meaningful for them,” Litman said. “Our students are not used to being heard or seen, and to have a day when that was celebrated and encouraged will do wonders for their self-esteem. As the students walked down to catch the buses, all the other students were coming up to them asking about their special project day. Our kids definitely were standing taller than they ever have.”
The Jersey City Education Association provided a lunch of pulled pork, fried chicken, beans, rice, and fried plantains prepared by the mother of two students in the class. In addition, students proudly shared homemade desserts from their countries of origin.
Litman, like almost all of the other teachers, will host an event so that the students’ families and the community can enjoy the art the students created.
In addition, students will be able to share their experience with paint.team. Sullivan has created a school-specific design for each of the participating schools that can be shared with the other students, enabling the original art students to become guides for their classmates.
Physical education teacher Regina Kay applied for the program because she wanted to show her students that despite coming from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, they really shared many of the same values, interests, hopes and dreams.
“I felt that the Mighty Fingers project has the power to break down my students’ insecurities and build their confidence,” Kay said. “Hopefully, that will lead them to develop new friendships.”
Kay had praise for the work Sullivan is doing to empower and encourage students.
“Kelly and her staff were amazing! They led the girls through a variety of activities that allowed for not only a chance for the girls to express themselves creatively, but also an opportunity to reflect on their lives and the impact they want to have on the world,” Kay said.
Clinton holds special meaning for Sullivan, who had her first art lesson at a local studio there.
“I was thrilled to see that Clinton was one of the applicants,” Sullivan said. “It was very meaningful for me to bring this project back to where it all began for me.”
The school selected all girls to participate and NJEA’s Emmy-award winning show, “Classroom Close-up NJ,” filmed the event and interviewed students and staff about the project. That episode will air May 20 and June 17 on NJTV. It will also be available online once it airs at classroomcloseup.org.
“Weeks after the event, I am still getting such wonderful feedback from the students and parents who were able to participate,” said math teacher Amy Brenner. “You’ve made a tremendous impact on the girls, and we are so grateful.”
At the final school, both boys and girls crowded around the art tables in Lora Durr’s classroom. Hamilton is also a culturally and economically diverse community that borders Trenton.
“The students brought a variety of experiences and talents to the project and the resulting art work was a beautiful way to complete this phase of the project,” Sullivan said.
Going forward, Sullivan is hoping to attend the parent and community nights at the schools to see the students proudly share their art work.
In addition, each school will share and complete its paint.team project.
“I believe profoundly in the power of art to change lives for the better,” Sullivan said. “I’m so pleased that I got to work with Michael and NJEA to bring this message to so many students.”
For more information about Sullivan’s work, go to mightyfingersfacingchange.com.
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org.
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