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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Youth art inspires dialogue on community

Students display the art they created in the Youth Re-Imagining Community initiative.
“Most people think we’re different, but we’re all human.” That’s the message Susy Virgas, a 9th-grader at Falls Church High School, wanted to convey with her artwork – and it’s also one of the key themes that emerged from a community dialogue May 3 at the Dar Al-Hijra Islamic Center.

Virgas was part of a group of 11 students from Annandale, Stuart, Woodson, and Falls Church high schools who are participating in the Youth Re-Imagining Community project at George Mason University which is all about exploring the meaning of community through art. Professors and graduate students at the GMU School of Art worked closely with the students, teaching them about art and how to present their ideas.
Susy Virgas, with her creation, on the left.
The artwork they created served as a springboard for discussions among the youths and adults about their vision of communities of the future and how diverse groups can engage with one another to realize that vision.  

The community dialogue was hosted by the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services with support from the Fairfax County Police Department, Annandale Roundtable, and Dar Al-Hijrah.

Here are some of the comments that emerged from the small-group discussions: 
  • One participant, inspired by one of the artworks, said, “If all flowers in a vase are identical, it does not look as good as if they vary in shape and color. Society works the same way.” 
Community members engage in a dialogue.
  • In recognition of the dinner provided by Dar Al-Hijrah, another participant noted how “food brings us together.” 
  • “Inclusiveness and diversity break barriers,” and increasing knowledge is important, said a junior at Stuart. If people don’t have a good understanding, they can’t make good decisions. 
Hilda Pineda, a student at Stuart High School. 
  • Acceptance is important, as is equality and equity, which aren’t the same thing. Some people need extra help. “If you only think about equality, you won’t be successful.” 
  • In reference to community building, “you’re not going to hate someone you don’t know. You can’t judge someone before you know them.” 
The event draws a large crowd. 
  • One of the student artists, who is from Honduras, suggested educators need to be educated to deal with students from a variety of cultures. 
  • Programs like this one, that break down barriers and stereotypes, are especially important in the current climate. 
  • Schools play an important role in bringing the community together. An eighth-grader at Glasgow Middle School noted that the international club and events like international night encourage students to learn about one another. 
Participants break into small group discussions. 
  • Social media can be used to share good news about the community and bring people from different cultures together. 
  • “Do more stuff like this,” meaning community and interfaith gatherings, and look for more ways to use art to facilitate dialogue, such as artworks by students in local restaurants. 
  • Welcome parents in schools and encourage them to be more involved. Adults and students can serve as mentors. 
  • The message of one of the student’s pictures, “I look strong but hurt inside,” is true for a lot of young people. 
  • The more children are exposed to art and culture, the most understanding they will develop. 
Peter Huyn of the Annandale Roundtable and Layla, a student at Glasgow, report on the discussion at their table.
Hilda Pineda, a ninth-grader at Stuart, shared the outcome of the discussion at her table with a graphic: A circle with the words “dreams and hopes” at the center surrounded by understanding, vulnerability, equity, courage, inclusivity, respect, and community.

Capt. Thomas Rogers, commander of the Mason Police Department, said being a police officer is not just about writing tickets and fighting crime; “it’s about treating people with empathy and respect. We all have differences but we’re all humans.”

Rogers’ message to youth: “Just because you might be different, don’t let anyone discourage you. It’s okay to fail; it’s okay to have setbacks. Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something. You can always do something if you put your mind to it.”

There will be two more community dialogues around these themes, said Elisa Lueck, the Region 2 director at the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. The ultimate goal is to create a community-based change team for the Bailey’s Crossroads and Culmore area consisting of youths, residents, and community organizations. 

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