Building art — and community — to advocate for public education
Federal Way teachers Megan Thorberg and Tiffany Christofferson carefully selected different-sized brushes as they outlined details and filled in the white, green and yellow on the student’s T-shirt. The picture was part of a red 40-foot-long banner proclaiming “Public Schools: The Heart of the Community.”
Behind them at another long table, Rachel McGlothlen and her husband outlined letters on another banner that would display “Diverse schools deserve diverse educators.”
“We need to make sure our students are seen and heard,” she says.
They were among the 500 educators, families, parents, students, union members and artists who joined the April 15-17 community Art Build hosted by Federal Way, Highline and Seattle education associations to create art supporting public education. In partnership with the National Education Association and Washington Education Association, the Art Build was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest to use art to amplify the messages about the thriving, supported schools that our students deserve.
Shannon McCann, Federal Way Education Association president, says this event is an example of the power of coming together as a community. Local education associations will carry the artwork to rallies and community events such as the Pride Parade in Seattle.
Seattle Education Association President Jennifer Matter says that educators will use these powerful visuals to amplify local bargaining efforts this year as locals tackle overdue issues created by the pandemic and chronic underfunding. SEA Vice President Uti Hawkins adds that we are always stronger in solidarity.
More than 150 school districts have contracts expiring Aug. 31. Yet, some issues need districts to act now. Students have unmet mental and behavioral health needs that are impacting their learning. The state Legislature funded more mental health supports for schools and districts need to hire these staff now. Educators are leaving at alarming rates, impacting our ability to teach and serve students.
“I’ve never had so many students with such urgent mental and behavioral health needs and it’s interrupting their learning,” says Iris Guzmán, a Highline Public Schools social worker. “These issues can’t wait for the bargaining table — our districts need to step up now, start hiring now, and get serious about staffing and student supports.”
Appropriate support and relief are long overdue for Seattle special education teacher Annie Cotton. At the start of the school year, Mercer International Middle School was understaffed by one special education teacher and three instructional assistants. By December, two of her colleagues quit, she says. And, the number of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) projected for next year makes staffing allocations grim.
“We have routinely been understaffed by the district,” says Cotton, who was designing a poster calling for sustainable IEP caseloads in school. Sitting across from her, daughter Lena Arnds Cotton colored her own sign about an issue close to her heart: having recess in all schools.
At the end of the long table, Federal Way EA member Kathy Miller had already created three posters and was busy working on another one. One declared, “Pay our ESPs,” the second, “Children thrive when our schools are funded,” the third, “ESPs, it’s not just a job to us” — and was busy working on a fourth.
“This is important,” says Miller, a data secretary at Star Lake Elementary School. “This is what makes our livelihood. We cannot not do this.”
Spending an afternoon decorating posters was cathartic and empowering, she adds. As a bonus, the art build gave her a chance to meet colleagues from other schools and see people she has only seen on Zoom.
For Federal Way’s Thorberg and Christofferson, the day was especially poignant. The banner they painted featured art by Thorberg’s former student Paige Pettibon, an artist known for incorporating her Indigenous culture into her works.
“Having parents, kids and the community here means a lot,” Thorberg says. “The past few years have been a struggle and it’s nice to come together to support what we all want for our schools and students.”
Highschoolers Nathan Le and Hannah Galinis spent two days painting three 24-foot parachute banners.
“This is the funnest community service I’ve done,” says Le, a 10th-grader at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way as he applied a swath of black paint. “These are very strong messages.”
Federal Way, Highline and Seattle worked with Milwaukee-based Art Build Workers to create and contribute graphic depictions of collective action. Local artists designed many of the artwork, and volunteers came from throughout the region. Together, in three days, they turned three massive parachutes into banners with slogans including, “Public Schools: The Heart of The Community.” The group also custom designed 200 posters, built 12 banners and 600 silk screen picket signs with messages calling for a nurse in every school, solidarity with educators and listening to educators and students. Upbeat music and five food trucks added to the weekend’s energy and fueled the momentum for safe, supportive schools that help students thrive.
"It has been months of planning together, and not it has superseded everyone's expectations in both participation and joyfulness," says Highline High School teacher and Highline Education Association Vice President Jeb Binns.
‘Investing in our future’
Emily Wilson, a speech language pathologist at Federal Way’s Meredith Hill Elementary, says using art to communicate a shared purpose creates ownership. She’s inspired not only by the creativity of students and parents in bringing posters to life, but by the conversations they were having as they worked together.
“We all need and want our schools to be safe places, have more staff to provide mental, emotional help as well as provide educational opportunities,” she says. “It feels like it’s investing for our kids, our students.”
Rep. Jamila Taylor, whose 30th legislative district covers parts of South King County, says she is happy to give up an afternoon to color a poster because she supports art in schools.
“Having access to this kind of care in the community, the realization that we can provide and create new opportunities for students and feel welcome are all things I want in our schools,” Taylor says. “I feel we can create these possibilities for every child.”
What’s most important is not even the art itself, but the process of making it and gaining community and building relationships — that’s the powerful part, says Jessica Stein, a fourth-grade teacher at Lakeridge Elementary School near Renton.
“I really like seeing the different locals working together,” Stein says. “We all have similar interests. The more we can do together, the better for everyone.”
View full collection of photos from Joe Brusky, a teacher and member of Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and a photographer with Art Build Workers.