Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Community-Building Through Art

Listen to your heart, respond, take action. . . starting right now!
~ Lily Yeh

Last week, Sunrise Sister at Mind Sieve wrote in her Veteran's Day post of "not know[ing] how to reconcile my feelings of sorrow, shame, and helplessness of not doing more for peace. . . ." She asked her readers whether they ever have the same feelings. A number of us responded. One reader asked her own question in turn: "Is one moment or one person enough to change anything?"

My answer is a resounding yes. It comes in the person of Lily Yeh.

Community-building is slow and messy and chaotic
[. . . and through it] we can change our environment and the world.

Lily Yeh is the founder of Barefoot Artists, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that uses art to transform impoverished communities. Before establishing Barefoot Artists in 2003, Yeh led for 18 years The Village of Arts and Humanities. Under Yeh's remarkable leadership, The Village, which she founded with two African American men in recovery for substance abuse, was transformed from a summer park-building project for which Yeh also served as lead artist into a community-building organization that sponsors after-school and weekend programs, "greening" land transformation, and housing renovation, theatre, and economic development initiatives. It is a leading model of community revitalizations in the United States.

Yeh's Barefoot Artists and The Village before it embody the essence of social justice. They exemplify for me the enormous social good that can come from one person kindling hope, providing direction, embracing what Yeh calls the "broken pieces" to find the light hidden in the cracks and the dark.

Yeh: one person inspired. One inspired person inspiring others. Others inspiring many more. A circle unbroken.

Yeh's was a vision. It was transformative. It continues to build communities all over the world.

In what were and remain often extremely difficult circumstances, Yeh shows the communities she serves how to paint their own dreams into their own reality. And in the painting, those communities re-connect, re-root, and re-center themselves.

Lily Yeh was honored at the October, 2009, conference of Bioneers, a nonprofit, solutions-oriented group of social and scientific innovators who "peer deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic "nature's operating instructions" to serve human ends without harming the web of life." In her presentation, which is just under 25 minutes long and was recorded live, Yeh spoke to the Bioneers with great passion about her work and with enormous sensitivity to the needs of those we too often ignore, such as the people of Rwanda, a country whose name has become synonymous with the word "genocide".  Find a half-hour to listen to Yeh's talk; watch for the joy on the faces of the children and adults her organization serves — people who had nothing and regained life through art. Notice what can be done when one person with an idea and a vision doesn't stop until she creates a future where before no future existed.

Yeh says she calls her work "Peace Compassion and Living Social Sculpture". The work is, she explains, "for the people, with the people, by the people and, at the end, belongs to the people."

One woman with an idea. An idea that comes to be called Barefoot Artists. Barefoot Artists who create communities of barefoot artists all over the world. Communities that make a huge difference in the lives of the people served. Lives once wrecked by lack of education, grinding poverty, and horrific war that can now see that where "beauty brings hope", hope for life — life itself — stands a chance.

We all have that innate light within us
 and my role is to ignite that pilot light
so that we shine together and light up the horizon.


Notes: I thank Mosaic Art Now for bringing the art and work of Lily Yeh to its readers' attention.

For those interested in the principles that guide Lily Yeh's work and her innovative methodology of using art as a transformational tool to build community, see Bill Moskin's and Jill Jackson's article,  "Warrior Angel: The Work of Lily Yeh" (October 21, 2004).

Here's a clip from a documentary about Yeh:

Here's a video on Yeh's Rwanda Healing Project:


Glynn said...

She has more than a vision -- she has a transformation.

M.L. Gallagher said...

One word: WOW!

You. Lily. WoW!

You wrote: A circle unbroken -- Lily has created an unbroken circle -- and she broke a circle of impoverishment, of lack, of scarcity by creating value in the lives of those who live there.

Thank you.


Bernadette Pabon said...

She has brought life through her work, wow, Yes something beautiful is needed by us all. What a gift.

L.L. Barkat said...

Never heard of her before. Now I need to dig deeper. The way you write of her is mesmerizing...

Peter P said...

TWO community posts?

Wow, you've had a busy day :-)