She held her palm up to my face. “Now when I move my palm,” she instructed, “Follow along with my movements.” I obeyed, dancing around the room in a frantic attempt to make sure my nose remained just a few inches from her hand—up, down, to the right, down suddenly, to the left …
Silvia Gonzalez, an artist and educator here in Chicago, is well-known around the city for her creative workshops that open a dialogue on important social issues. This particular workshop was run for the Women in Public Service Program of the University of Chicago in January and explored power dynamics through exercises from the Theater of the Oppressed. Gonzalez opened the workshop by asking for a volunteer, who was instructed to stand with her arm and hand outstretched, to be directly in front of another woman’s face. The second woman then outstretched her own arms and palms, and two other participants were told to position themselves in front of her palms before they in turn held their own hands in front of others’ faces, creating a chain like a system of branches. The initial volunteer was then positioned at the beginning of the chain; she, who did not have to follow a palm to follow, essentially controlled the entire room. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the person following a palm three people down the chain was left trying to follow a hand that was flying about distractedly as people further up the chain tried to respond to changes from the person at the beginning.
“How did you feel being at the other end of my palm?” she asked at the end of the exercise, when we came together to discuss what we had observed and learned.
In the back of the Hyde Park Art Center, a long hallway stretches through several gallery spaces. Its walls are lined with small pieces of artwork, and situated between two of these works, in a small alcove, is an unassuming vending machine. Although at first glance it appears to be normal, if you wait long enough, you might witness it swinging open to reveal the hidden doorway behind it. It was through this doorway that Silvia Gonzalez emerged one afternoon in May to speak with the Gate.
Gonzalez’s studio was large enough to comfortably accommodate multiple wide tables, and we sat at one near the back, next to a large window and a stack of easels. Throughout our conversation, Gonzalez occasionally gestured towards the paper- and supplies-filled shelves surrounding us, pointing out various projects or drafts as she discussed her work.
The space itself is shared between Gonzalez and several other artists, all of whom study with the Center Program, an institution of learning that seeks to develop creative thinkers “in support of Chicago’s broader arts community.”
In this community, Gonzalez furthers the work she’s been pursuing since she first ventured into the art world. Specifically, she tries to answer an important question: what’s missing?
"You know, as people of color, we always feel like something's not right, something's missing in our education.” Gonzalez reflected. “I didn’t see myself reflected in my teachers, in the books we were reading, in the literature and art …”
She began to unravel her questions about this discrepancy with the help of mentors throughout her education. Specifically, she recognized David Stovall, a professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, as being one of the first people who helped her realize what had been missing and why, and to begin to think about what can be done to help empower and encourage young people, especially young people of color who might also feel that something is missing in their education.
“That led me into thinking and considering how art could be used to engage critical dialogue,” she explained.
Much of Gonzalez’s work, to that end, is done in a primary school setting through the use of various workshops, games, and activities. One example of a creative way that Gonzalez was able to incorporate complex social issues in her art lessons to kindergarteners is through lessons—surprisingly enough—about monarch butterflies.
“We were talking about immigration, and I try to integrate different perspectives within my units, so we watched a short clip on the history of butterfly migration, we looked at the artist Fabiana Rodriguez, and we thought about our own ways of moving in space,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez further explored these themes through the use of workshop games and discussions. First, she had the kids walk around the classroom and describe the ways that they move in space. Then she had them expand to think about their daily routines—where do they first move when they wake up? How do they get to school? Finally, she drew the connection to the butterflies.
“Butterflies migrate to Mexico, right?” Gonzalez explained. “And they have knowledge of their ancestral tree. There are certain generations that go back, certain that don’t. And the generation that goes back returns to the same spot and the same tree that their ancestors came from. So we talked a lot about that—about ancestry, about what it means that a part of your generation is extremely connected to another part of your ancestry, and it was beautiful to make that concrete connection between butterflies and themselves.”
By using her art to convey complex ideas through images, symbols and motions, Gonzalez is able to discuss topics such as immigration in her lessons even for children as young as five. She emphasizes, however, that these creative and artistic connections are only the means to start the conversation and give the students the language that they need to communicate their ideas. It is up to the students to take her framework and build something truly powerful with it.
“I think students bring a lot more than they get out sometimes, and I think that's something that I really hold precious too,” she said. “This idea comes from Paulo Freire, who talks about not thinking about school or education as a banking system where students are buckets to be filled with knowledge, but rather to think of students as people who bring something, and to use that as the rich space that we're building from.”
The beauty of Gonzalez’s work is that she not only provides her students with artistic and theatrical frameworks to think about these issues, but that she also encourages them to think critically and innovatively about the ways to move forward.
“I always ask myself, what am I building towards? I think even my education work and my own practice is always about possibility,” Gonzalez said.
For Gonzalez, working towards greater possibility entails speaking meaningfully with children about heavy topics, even when the issue at hand hits close to home. In these cases, the possibility she works to foster manifests as giving students the tools to engage critically with practices of injustice outside of classroom discussion and to draw their own conclusions about them. On one occasion, her students took independent action to examine mental health stigma and the way it influences the school-to-prison pipeline. Through their own research, the students reasoned that “young people need and deserve counselors in their schools to be able to process the trauma that happens in their communities.”
These conversations extend beyond peer-to-peer communication, even leading to important household dialogue between students and their families. More than once, parents have come to Gonzalez to recount private conversations they have had with their children—conversations that were sparked by questions tackled in the classroom.
“There was a time when a young student’s mother told me at report card pick-up: ‘I know what you're teaching my daughter! [My daughter] came home one day and she was like, Ma! I know what we are. We're Chicanas.’ They ended up having an entire conversation around her mother's knowledge of chicana history.”
For Gonzalez, the dissemination of pertinent and complex ideas is a means to build toward something new. It is through difficult or complicated dialogue, particularly with young learners, that change occurs. And when this dialogue is both imaginative and grounded in reality, the possibilities held by the future are all the more tangible.
“I'm really interested in having critical conversations with people … That in and of itself is dismantling oppression. It's addressing it, it's opening up a conversation that maybe is offering a new perspective on what to do with it, it's organizing people to think about something critically in a new way, whether it's through the body, through the hands, through some kind of process that we engage in.”
Working to day in and day out to unmask and weaken systems of injustice might sound like a demoralizing task. But Silvia Gonzalez is up for the job—especially because she is influenced and supported by artists operating on a similar premise.
“I love and really look up to a lot of organizations here in Chicago that are doing powerful work within the communities that they live in and work in, and so first and foremost [I] acknowledge that I'm not doing this alone.”
During her workshop with the Women in Public Service Program, and then again in conversation with the Gate, a single phrase became a clear point of focus for Gonzalez. Whether she is guiding college-aged women through an exercise at the Institute of Politics, instructing a classroom of young learners, or sitting comfortably amidst piled easels in her grey, afternoon-lit studio, Gonzalez returns to the poetry of Assata Shakur. “A wall is just a wall and nothing more at all,” she recites. “It can be broken down.”
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.