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Framed in a New Light: Accessibility, Activism, and Art

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

By: Clara Schneider and Rachel Barglow

Ron Whyte spent his evening with us on August 8th. Through his work at Mural Arts Philadelphia, Whyte has a city-oriented view that presents a unique perspective on climate-related issues. His work uses art and education to address a large variety of problems caused by environmental change. This can be seen in a program Whyte works on within Mural Arts, known as Trash Academy, which aims to solve social issues created by the intersection of environmental justice and climate change related to waste, pollution and public health in city neighborhoods.

Recognizing adolescents as the focal point of the environmental movement, Trash Academy develops leadership skills and encourages activism in the younger generation through a youth cohort. The program’s emphasis on equity makes it accessible to many individuals who might not otherwise have the opportunity to work in a similar setting. A project Trash Academy did, which exemplifies its focus on equity, assisted in the passing of a plastic bag ban in Philadelphia. Called the “Bring Your Own Bag movement,” the project’s posters proved that anyone can use reusable bags, and demonstrated through a billboard exhibiting a collection of diverse portraits that everyone can care about the environment.

Inclusivity is a keystone part of protecting the environment. Whyte reiterated the ability of collective action to promote positive change through the disruption of the status quo. He referenced an example of people putting their bodies on the line to prevent climate change and preserve tribal land in Minnesota. In these protests environmental activists and indigenous people have rallied together to block the construction of an oil pipeline running through Native American communities. As explained by Whyte, the problems that the environment and people face from climate change cannot be solved by individuals acting alone. Individuals can be part of the solution, but organized groups demanding change like the one in Minnesota are necessary to produce the large-scale reform that comes from government and corporate action. The importance of collective action establishes the role of diverse involvement and inclusivity in the environmental movement.

Art promotes inclusivity and accessibility, bringing people into the environmental movement who might originally be unsure of their place. Whyte spoke on the importance of using art to envision change, referencing the artistic strategy of several other notable organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement. We discussed as a group how creating a vision of the world we want to live in helps us develop a plan for the future. The art world is often elitist and enjoyed only by privileged people. Whyte mentioned the political reality of art; the wealthy people who fund projects often have invested in fossil fuels and therefore don’t support projects regarding the environment. The creation of accessible art together is an amazing opportunity to instead use art as a tool for change. This is relevant to our work in the Climate Futures Remembrance project, as we strive to use the impact of public art to combat the drastic effects of climate change. As we continue with this project and in our future work as climate activists, we hope that we can bring the spirit of community art for change along with us.

In the final moments of our time with Ron, he showed us a painting of a future city filled with nature growing in the streets and on top of buildings. He asked us to share art that inspires us by providing a vision of hope for a better future. One intern had just published a video with other high school students in Sunrise Arlington describing their aspirations for the future. We all watched it together, and invite you to take a look here.

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