Water is life.
Last year, this was the rallying cry for thousands around the U.S. Whether it was the community in Flint, Michigan protesting about the city’s lead contaminated water or the water protectors at Standing Rock trying to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, water was dominating headlines everywhere.
Many looked at what could be done about these crises and others through a political or environmental angle. The 15 students in Grace Aneiza Ali’s spring “Artists, Social Change, and the Role of Journalism” class at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University took another approach: arts activism.
“Flint was on every front page,” Ali said. “Water was on all of our hearts and minds.”
Ali saw the class as an opportunity to examine the critical role journalism plays in documenting how art can be a catalyst for change in communities. To do so, the students were charged to function as an editorial team and develop a special issue of the global online arts activism publication, OF NOTE Magazine, of which Ali is founder and editorial director.
The result of the collaboration with the Department of Art & Public Policy was The Water Issue. The issue featured 10 artists from New Orleans to India engaging with water through a variety of mediums (film, painting, photography, science and design, sculpture, and dance) and tackling issues such as: how race and gender play into the crisis, corporate control of water, and more.
“For us, it was important that all the artists in The Water Issue see their roles as ones that go beyond raising awareness to creating work that challenges us to interrogate how as a modern society we’ve transformed water from sacred to commodity,” Ali said in an interview with ivoh.
The water crisis affects over a billion people across the globe. Between the students’ own experiences traveling to developing countries and Ali sharing her personal challenges about growing up in her homeland Guyana without access to clean water, the class embraced the opportunity to expand their perspectives as well as examine their biases when it comes to who has clean water and who does not.
Ali dedicated time to teaching the class about Restorative Narrative, using examples from ivoh’s website and her own experiences, to show students that how people dealt with and recovered from difficult situations was as equally an important part of the story. .
The class eventually pared down a list of 40 artists to 10, selecting them for their long-term commitment to water in their artistic practice as well as the work’s impact—whether it was raising awareness, affecting policy, or bringing humanity to the crisis.
At its best art inspires empathy, which can lead to change. Restorative Narrative shows people that not only are solutions are possible, but that they can be part of creating them.
“Once the students saw those Restorative Narrative models of what journalism could look like and could be, that these stories don’t have to be dire, they were forever changed by that,” Ali said. “You can see them very proactively infusing those resiliency perspectives into their final articles on the artists.”
For example, student-writer Alison Reba could’ve chosen to present the same old story on Flint, but instead she framed her article about photographer Brittany Greeson through the lens of resilience. Greeson’s images capture the intimacy of trauma and present a Restorative Narrative that highlights the ways residents are proving to be self-sufficient.
Same with filmmaker Yoav Shavit, whose film Women of Refaiya gives a window into the daily lives of three Palestinian girls who must walk 30 miles to fetch water everyday. Student-writer Yael Heiblum was intentional about showing how Shavit’s film portrays the girls as not victims but as having agency — as strong and resilient young women with dreams.
“Most of the world engages with water as if it is a privilege. In the U.S.,however, it’s seen as a right,” Ali said. “There’s a huge disconnect between how the West treats water and what the rest of world’s citizens have to do to negotiate for it.”
Ali didn’t have running water in her home in the first fourteen years of her life in Guyana. Her family couldn’t afford bottled water, so she grew up with the daily chore of boiling and straining water from the tap in her backyard so that it would be safe to drink.
“Water was this arduous process. We had to decontaminate the dirty water that came to our taps and turn it into water that could be drinkable,” she said. “We grew up getting sick, or living in the fear of getting sick.”
While important to confront lived experiences such as Ali’s, a reality for many across continents, the goal of The Water Issue was to focus on this idea of resiliency. For many artists who’ve witnessed trauma or experienced despair, making art itself is an act of Restorative Narrative — a way of persevering.
Water Issue artist Christopher Saucedo is a good example of this. Surviving both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, his paintings of Red Cross blankets, gallon jugs, and cups give him a sense of comfort and provide the same to those who’ve experienced water’s inhumane side.
Role modeling these stories is crucial to our health. They give us hope.
In their end of class evaluations, many students noted how their thinking shifted. Not only were they introduced to a wide roster of artists in this field, they started to consider arts journalism as a career path. With many publications phasing out their arts and culture reporting, Ali believes it’s crucial to train a new generation of journalists to seek stories of resilience and rebuilding through an arts lens.
“Outside of the arts activism community, which is its own bubble, the general public still sees the arts as entertainment or luxury,” she said. “That’s a mentality we have to change. We have to show how arts journalism can illuminate the artists finding resolutions to problems in their communities.”
Ali credits Kathy Engel, chair of Art and Public Policy and lifelong arts activist, who invited her to collaborate with the department, for understanding this need and the urgency for students to be exposed to arts activism in this way.
“It [The Water Issue] offered our students exactly what we might wish for — a probing scholarly research experience in which they connect with urgent challenges in the world in meaningful and imaginative ways … all resulting in a real manifestation with impact in the world,” Engel said.
With Flint residents still awaiting a full return to clean taps, Standing Rock protectors anticipating a continued fight, and millions of people in Syria’s war-torn capital deprived of running water, it’s clear the world’s water crisis isn’t going away.
While they may not have had all the solutions, embarking on The Water Issue for Ali and her students had a long-lasting impact beyond the classroom.
“It really influenced our lives at a microlevel about how we waste water and how we are privileged in our engagement with it,” she said. “I think a lot of us checked ourselves, and rightfully so.”
Editor’s note: Grace Aneiza Ali is an ivoh trustee.