Cleo Barnett is a New Zealand American curator, artist and creative director. Currently based in Seattle, Washington, her practice explores the relationship between public space, storytelling, and human rights. Since 2016 Cleo has been Deputy Director of Amplifier, a nonprofit organization that builds art and media experiments to amplify the most important movements of our time. Recently Cleo collaborated with Design in Public and American Institute of Architecture to curate Sanctuary: Design for Belonging and continues to explore ways to address migration and displacement in an urban context.
When humans cross borders, their human rights come with them. Yet increasingly we are witnessing political leaders in Western countries invest in cages, border security, and a nationalist approach of isolationism. When we say that one life is more valuable than another, that is a reflection of our values and cannot be justified or simplified to what is legal or illegal.
With 68.5 million refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, this is now the largest humanitarian crisis of our time and it is only increasing with Western-fueled arms trade and the climate crisis. Despite the Western capitalist culture of fear, scapegoating and individualism persuading many into believing a wall or deportation is going to stop people from migrating for their survival, more of us are taking cues from indigenous wisdom, looking to nature to understand the true interconnectedness of us all and recognizing that migration is natural to our humanity.
While governments around the world are continually disappointing those in favor of equality with transparent policies ingrained in far-right ideology, we the people are called to be the change we want to see in the world. With innovative approaches to art and design, we are now seeing a rise of thoughtful people-powered responses to the refugee crisis in public spaces, created with the intention to shift culture and live the change we want to see in the world. Below are six examples of people-powered interventions from around the world designed to shift power structures, build empathy and reimagine a democracy that works for all people.
I AM A CHILD
“A child is a child no matter what country they were born in. A child is a child even when they cross the border. A child’s desire to stay with their parents is a human right. In homage to the iconic I AM A MAN photo, I am proud to present I AM A CHILD.” Created by Paola Mendoza with photography by Kisha Bari and production support by Becky Morrison in 2018.
Asylum is a right that belongs to everyone, as defined by the law. However recent policy shifts seen in the United States and many Western European countries exemplify how laws bend to reflect the values held within political office and all those who vote these leaders into power. In an attempt to reinfuse humanity into the discussion of Trump’s ruling to separate families and lock children in cages (cages inside tents without air conditioning in the middle of the desert during peak summer months, with a number reported to have died or suffered sexual assault), I AM A CHILD launched as a public art intervention to uplift humanity and our shared values to speak truth to the powers that are separating families legally seeking asylum at the US/Mexico border.
In collaboration with Families Belong Together, one of the grassroots organizations on the ground at the US/Mexico border providing healthcare and legal aid for asylum seekers, this campaign was launched in public spaces and online with the aim of helping to reunify children separated from their families at the border. Paola Mendoza, the visionary behind the visuals fueling this movement says, “It’s almost impossible to hate someone whose story you know.” As a storyteller and movement leader, her work continues to tell the stories of those seeking asylum in order to cut through the othering that leaves isolated white communities so able to remove human values from the dialogue around asylum seekers.
While the campaign has successfully reunited hundreds of children (including some who were only months old and breastfeeding when separated) with their families, there are still hundreds of babies and children detained in cages and disconnected from their families. You can learn more about the movement here. 100% of the money raised from this campaign will go to reunify families torn apart at the border. The funding goes towards support and advocacy for separated families to be removed from detention pending the completion of their cases; to coordinate mental health, medical and social services required by parents and children as a result of the trauma of separation; and for support, services and legal representation in connection with asylum claims and immigration proceedings.
UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage
Echoing Mendoza’s work and the words of legendary public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, “proximity matters,” there is an understanding of the human condition that once you hear someone’s personal story you can no longer ‘other’ them. UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage humanizes the word “refugee” through art and storytelling. Created during the summer of 2017, this multi-media installation is the work of Syrian-born, New Haven, CT based artist and architect Mohamad Hafez, and Iraqi-born writer and speaker Ahmed Badr.
Hafez sculpturally re-creates rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is embedded with the voices and stories of real people—from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan—who have escaped those same rooms and buildings to build a new life in America. Their stories are collected and curated by Badr, so these messages can reach a wider audience. Exhibited in public spaces and galleries around the world, this series continues to humanize refugees, showing how much we have in common outside of the country we were born in. You can read and listen to the stories, as well as take a closer look at the suitcases online here.
X them out – The Black Map of Athens
What you don’t see, you can’t know. Building on the themes of raising awareness about stories that don’t get represented in mainstream media, the campaign “X them out – The Black Map of Athens” was designed to make visible the racially motivated attacks in public spaces in Athens. For each race-based violent attack in public space, this organization marks the physical location with a sticker or QR Code. Installed in public spaces throughout Athens, once you find one of these stickers, you can scan the code with your mobile phone and see the artwork that illustrates the incident.
Spearheaded by the nonprofit organization HumanRights360, which not only provides legal and financial support to refugees in Athens, but also is tracking the rise of power amongst the Golden Dawn, a far-right political group holding office in Greece who allegedly has direct ties to Neo-Nazi’s. “We have created this joint venture aiming both at highlighting the topography of racist violence and make the general public aware of the dangers.” Learn more about this organization’s work and public art initiatives here.
It has long been a strategy of those in political power to find ways to divide people, normally along ideological, geographic, economic, racial and gender lines, in order to keep us separated and diminish our collective power. This classic patriarchal divide-and-conquer model to harness power is what this youth-driven design concept overcomes.
Through design and the activation of art in public space, COMPARTE/lo SIMPLE investigates the question of how might we propitiate a support service for Central American migrants in Mexico City in which tools and connections between routes, migrants, and citizens are promoted so that migrants who leave migrant shelters have a less vulnerable, safer and more effective transit. In collaboration with a community of migrants and volunteers in Mexico City who are a part of a network of shelters throughout the country and Mexican civil society, this social innovation project empowers migrants with key resources to achieve a stable, secure and efficient migration journey.
Through a series of visible symbols installed in public geographical points located throughout Mexico, migrants can access people-powered resources like access to the internet, local allies and tools for short term income opportunities. The project promotes access to information, understanding that information is a manifestation of power since migrant communities will have to make important decisions that may improve their stay or transit through Mexico. In this case, information may be translated into alternative routes for migrants, the location of nearby institutions that could help them, obtaining identity documents, the status of their relatives, and other resources to aid in the safety of their migration.
One of the major goals of this project is to shift the dynamics of Mexico City to make a more migrant-supportive environment. By creating these pathways for resource-sharing and collaboration, those who participate gain invaluable insight into the power of sharing resources and the multiple problems migrants face, with the aim of reducing their vulnerability and shifting the culture of individuality.
We The Future
We The Future is an education initiative created in 2018 by Amplifier, a non-profit design lab, in collaboration with four leading artists (Kate DeCiccio, Shepard Fairey, Rommy Torrico, and Munk One) to amplify the voices of ten young leaders representing ten diverse movements. Each already building us a better world, Amplifier’s goal was to get this artwork plus lesson plans created by these young leaders and their movements, for free, into 20,000 classrooms across the United States.
These young leaders are drafting and passing legislation, working on climate justice, criminal justice reform, voting rights, immigration rights, disability justice, gun reform, queer rights and literacy. Their work is nonpartisan, and it carries the energy of countless communities from every background. In a time of uncertainty, these icons show us a path forward, and they show us that the Future is already here.
Specifically in response to immigration justice and immigrant rights, Amplifier collaborated with Isra Chaker from Oxfam America and Leah the Activist from Families Belong Together, to provide teachers with artwork and lesson plans to drive thoughtful discussions around immigration reform through a nonpartisan lens. Currently in the classrooms of 300,000+ students classrooms across the United States, the artwork and teaching tools will be inspiring and engaging with the next generation of leaders over many years to come. What students see or don’t see on their classroom walls matter, if you are an educator sign up for free social-justice-inspired teaching tools to drive meaningful youth-centered conversations.
Amplifier believes that art has the power to wake people up and create meaningful change. Once you see something, you can never unsee it. By reclaiming public spaces in cities and towns all across the country we are amplifying the voices of social movements to shift the national narrative. Not a teacher but still looking to raise the visibility of this social justice issue in your community? Download free high resolution artworks here.
Te Ora Auaha: Creative Wellbeing Alliance Aotearoa
In response to the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch New Zealand, this participatory installation was facilitated by social practice artist, Tiffany Singh in collaboration with students at Epsom Girls Grammar School. Students at the school co-created a rainbow laden with messages and love for Christchurch, with thoughts, prayers and sentiments of love, tolerance and compassion.
Artist Tiffany Singh, alongside educators, community leaders and activists across New Zealand, has joined forces to create Te Ora Auaha: Creative Wellbeing Alliance Aotearoa, a government-supported program to reimagine how the country will invest in arts and wellbeing. Recognizing that the economy needs to work for all of our people, the New Zealand government is prioritizing wellness in its budget considerations. This represents a big shift to a new compassionate way of policy-making that explicitly and unapologetically puts New Zealanders’ wellbeing first.
A founding member, Peter O’Connor, says, ‘There are some things only the arts can heal, the deep sicknesses which impact on the body of a country: racism, terrorism, inequality. The arts are a powerful way of healing. They do that by making beautiful things to remind us of the joy and wonder of being alive. The last two weeks have taught us as a nation that the arts are absolutely central to any recovery.” Speaking to the recent white supremacist terrorist attacks in New Zealand, Te Ora Auaha believes the arts help us heal in a unique and direct way, in order to process events which we struggle to comprehend.
Ministry officials are currently collaborating with Statistics New Zealand to develop a specific set of cultural wellbeing indicators. You can learn more about this innovative response to increased racism in response to immigration and refugees here.
The need for a global network of localized grassroots-driven, nonviolent resistance to racist responses to the refugee crisis is pivotal to ushering in healthy and just democracies, which are more immune to civil war. At the core of these interventions is a call to reject power structures that attempt to divide us and build intelligent systems, with the understanding of our inherent connectedness. At the center of each of these projects is a deep recognition that human rights, collective wellbeing and shared prosperity are the foundation for a thriving society.
My hope is that this article provokes new ways of thinking about the collective power already present within your community and how you can harness that through art and design to creatively think about your own direct action and impact.
I’d love to hear from you about what resonates with you in this article, what was effective or could be more powerful with any of these people-powered responses to racism and the refugee crisis, or to share other design and artist interventions using public spaces to share power and support forcibly displaced peoples. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read our previous interview with Cleo here.