A World on Fire: A Profile on Artist-Educator Eve Ewing

 /  May 21, 2017, 1:51 p.m.


Dr. Eve Ewing is a busy woman. Between all she has done and all she continues to do, her titles range from educator to artist, from scholar to poet. While this sounds like it could make for a packed agenda, it is clear that all of Ewing’s endeavors are motivated by a single unifying factor: her unyielding drive to mobilize goodness. Whether it is a book on South Side school closures, a poem of affirmation meant for those behind bars, or an opinion piece in The New York Times, Ewing is living proof that tackling issues of injustice is not a single-front battle.

Currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, Ewing chatted with the Gate on March 6. We sat down with her in the back corner of Plein Air, a busy on-campus cafe during the early evening, and after friendly introductions and a brief moment to settle in, we began to discuss her work amid the warm chatter of the café. In the course of an hour-long conversation we learned about her dedication to educational equality, which was largely shaped by her upbringing.  

“Growing up in Chicago is kind of a lived study in the politics of race, segregation, history, inequality,” Ewing told us. As a child, she attended Chicago Public Schools before eventually enrolling at the University of Chicago as an undergraduate. Her time in institutions of learning, particularly in college, was replete with both formal and informal studies of racism and inequality, and it was the repetition of particular observed patterns in her own life that compelled her to study schools themselves. After briefly working as a Chicago Public Schools teacher, Ewing decided to pursue an advanced degree. She received a diploma from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016.

“I realized that so much of what happened in my classroom felt outside of and beyond my control, and beyond the control of children and teachers, and so I became fascinated with understanding why schools are the way they are,” Ewing explained.

Energized by this fascination, Ewing has written numerous books, articles, and essays, and she has been published in the The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and most recently the New York Times. As a postdoctoral scholar, her current academic work focuses on race and inequality in urban public school systems; however, her socially-minded endeavors often transcend the traditional modes of academic expression. Ewing is also a prolific artist, whose poetry and visual work engages with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

When asked how she chooses which medium to use for which message, Ewing let her sense of humor shine through, comparing the choice between media to the choice between a banana split and a piece of cake.

“They’re both delicious, [but] if I have one today, it doesn’t mean I can’t have the other tomorrow!” she explained. “I think different kinds of media work for telling different stories to different people in different moments.”

To illustrate her point, Ewing gave a few examples from her work on racism and inequality, issues that she has tackled both in her art and academic writings over the past few years. Her book that is due in 2018, When The Bell Stops Ringing, tells the story of school closings through “data, history, numbers and graphs,” which will speak to audiences in academia, the policy world, and the general public. But for those who cannot connect to quantitative data and facts, Ewing is also able to speak powerfully through poems that she has written on the subject of school closings, which reflect the emotional effects of many of the policies described in her book. One such poem, “Requiem for Fifth Period and The Things That Went On Then,” was a way for her to try to remember the “ghost” of a shut-down school that had once been bustling with students. As she explained in an interview with bird’s thumb, the poem was “inspired by [her] desire to honor the spirit of the school [. . .] to memorialize and celebrate the everyday interactions and seemingly insignificant events that build a culture and a community.”

In some cases, however, certain mediums seem uniquely suited to deliver a certain message. For example, through her poem, “Affirmation,” Ewing uses poetry to empower young people in jail. Written to be memorizable, “the poem is supposed to actually be an affirmation that you can say to yourself in a time of crisis.” In this instance, the use of memorizable art became a way of communicating with and bringing hope to a group of people who are isolated from society in a way that academic writing and online articles never could. Art seems to have a certain unique power to connect people and to express the intangible, emotional side of the complex sociological problems that Ewing studies, a power that she harnesses masterfully in her poetry.

However, Ewing did warn against drawing unnecessary or unfair “boundaries” around audiences. A common misconception, she explained, is that academic articles are not suited for a certain audience, that they are only “accessible for these people or those people.” Through her experience performing and sharing her work, Ewing has witnessed a very different reality. Once, while teaching a class at Stateville Prison in downstate Illinois, she shared an article that she had written for The New Yorker about racism and school closures in Chicago. The students engaged with the article in a more dynamic and thoughtful way than she had previously seen with other audiences, sharing their own experiences and bringing in other works that they had read. This experience, Ewing said, confirmed to her that writers should never make assumptions about who can read certain works and why. “I remain committed to having different kinds of venues,” she explained, “but I also think that some of the presumptions we make about audience are false.”

While discussing the different roles that art can play and the different ways that it can communicate a message, Ewing also touched on the ways that art can be used to inspire activism and social change. Referencing recent works in popular culture, such as the film Get Out and Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” Ewing commented on art’s ability to challenge people’s preformed judgments. “[Art] can create moments of cognitive dissonance for people that force them to think differently about what they think they know [and] to encounter a world beyond their own,” she said.

In an era of “fake news,” the articles and opinions found on social media feeds tend to confirm preexisting biases or misunderstandings. It is the responsibility of the artist, Ewing argues, to create moments in which the viewer is jarred into encountering “a world beyond their own.” This disruption causes viewers to think more critically about the information that shapes their own worldviews.

Again, Ewing highlighted a personal experience to bring this statement to life—this one was, ironically, centered around the perplexing notion that she is at a disadvantage to write books about racism because she has had so much personal experience with it. “I write books about racism and I don’t know what it’s like to learn about racism from a book for the first time,” she noted. While she knew that art and writing provide important opportunities to expose people to experiences beyond their own, she was not sure what this actually looked like in practice for her readers.

In an attempt to learn more about what it would be like to learn about racism from a book, Ewing turned to Twitter, another one of her favorite outlets for self-expression. She asked her followers to name a book that allowed them to have an “aha” moment about racism—and the results were astounding. Many, not surprisingly, identified The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a turning point in their understanding of race. Others named works by Ta-Nehisi Coates, such as the book Between the World and Me and the article “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared in The Atlantic in 2014. The more amusing answers, however, were the least expected—for example, the movie Friday, which is an Ice Cube classic, shaped a few of her followers’ worldviews. For some, watching this comedy about two young black men was the “first time [they had] thought about a day in a black person’s life,” or the first time they had encountered a black person’s world.

For Ewing, this Twitter experiment underscored the power of popular culture to make a difference and to help us understand people different from ourselves, whether through books, art, film, or poetry.

Engaging in social justice—especially in today’s turbulent political climate—can be an exhausting job. With this in mind, we posed one last question to Ewing: “After a long day, what keeps you committed to rolling up your sleeves the next day?”

Ewing’s response was a deeply personal one, rooted in her own life experiences and summed up in a quote by Sandra Cisneros: “The world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning in it.”

“It’s not that uplifting, but it’s what I believe,” Ewing said, adding that for her, the fight for social justice is a fight for her own life and for the lives of the people she loves. “I see my [former] students all the time in the city, and [some of them] are in college, and [some of them] are in jail. And both of those two archetypes of students will always be, in my head, children of infinite promise.” Ewing notes that the only way to allow all of these kids to fulfill this potential, or promise, is to reform our schooling system and give all that we can possibly give to each student, something which is not happening in our modern urban school districts.

“I’m literally trying to fight for my own life and the lives of people I love,” Ewing explained, “and I can’t stop until the fire’s put out.”

So Ewing keeps writing, thinking, speaking out, and creating, availing herself of all the media at her disposal to fight for what she believes is right. She has several exciting projects on the horizon in the coming year, including the publication of a collection of her poetry, titled “Electric Arches,” on September 5, and the performance of a show called “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” which was co-written by Ewing and her colleague and friend Nate Marshall, in November. Another ongoing project of Ewing and Marshall’s is crescendo literary, an organization which creates and curates “community-engaged art experiences.” Two events that are also coming up are the Chicago Poetry Block Party this summer, which is a “festival of poetry, music and art,” as well as the “Emerging Poets Incubator,” which brings together a cohort of poets from around the country for a few days to share their experiences engaging their art with the community.

Between all of the upcoming events and projects, we can be sure that Ewing will continue working just as hard as ever, writing articles, composing blog posts, posting Twitter threads, dreaming up poems, and, of course, giving interviews. In fact, right after meeting with the Gate, Ewing hurried off to another interview, her second or third that evening. Dedicated and fiercely passionate, Ewing will surely continue to inspire and create for years to come, not stopping until she puts out that fire.

The image featured in this article can be found here.

Alexandra Price & Emma Preston


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