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Sharing King-Sized Values

01/23/2013

RISD students help young artists practice their painting techniques during Monday's Day of Service held at an elementary school.

On Monday, January 21 – Martin Luther King Day – the cafeteria in Providence’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School could have been mistaken for a rowdy carnival. Tiny hands smeared bright-colored paint on canvasses. Students crowded screenprinting workstations to make their own wearable t-shirts. And music lovers of all ages unabashedly kicked up their heels to the rhythmic beat of live reggae.

The artistic celebration was all part of the MLK Day of Service, the second-annual event hosted by RISD and the Mt. Hope Learning Center. More than 100 RISD student volunteers donated their time to make arts and crafts workshops available to a diverse group of elementary school students. “We had an outpouring of support,” noted Andy Jacques, assistant director for Leadership Programs. “Events like these help inspire young artists to continue being creative.”

For example, a “pop-up gallery” in the cafeteria showcased whimsical illustrations, watercolors and paintings. “We wanted to share our work with the elementary school students so they can see that art and design can be a career choice for them in the future,” explains Xinn Lin BArch 16, who curated the small show.

Wearing a mask of face paint, Bianca Diaz 13 IL got the chance to talk shop with a most impassioned artist: a four-year-old boy who fashioned a piece of tile. Throughout the day, RISD students helped the pint-sized creatives make small pieces of ceramic art inspired by the I Have a Dream speech King delivered in 1963. Those works will be included in a school mural depicting the evolution of the civil rights movement in the US.

“The kids are so adorable,” Diaz says with a beaming smile. “I just love the concept of service. It’s so important to connect with others.”

A Larger Celebration

Monday’s Day of Service was just one of the powerful programs in RISD’s 2013 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Series, a week of events honoring the legacy of the influential civil rights leader. Held each January, the annual celebration includes programs, events and workshops to provide the RISD and local communities with moments of service, reflection, skill development and inspiration.

“The Day of Service is a prime example of how the arts can be used to bridge generational gaps and break down walls,” explains Tony Johnson 93 SC, director of the Office of Intercultural Student Engagement. “Through community conversations sparked from this week's series, we can address social ills like racism and poverty.”

The week culminates in a keynote address by living legend Harry Belafonte, who will discuss the role of Artist as Activist in the RISD Auditorium on Tuesday, January 29. Many know the 85-year-old musician as the “King of Calypso.” His Caribbean-style music was immensely popular in the 1950s, with one of his LPs being the first record to sell more than a million copies. But Belafonte has made a huge impact beyond the music world, too.

“He’s a groundbreaking artist,” explains Johnson. “He’s the first African-American to earn a Tony award for his work on Broadway and an Emmy for his television appearances. He broke so many cultural barriers.”

Belafonte is also as much a humanitarian as an artist. The former United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ambassador is credited with personally funding activities that initially helped lift the civil rights movement off the ground. And he’s been instrumental in bringing awareness to hunger and the AIDS crisis. “Harry has been able to bring about change with such admirable dignity,” Johnson notes. “We wanted to bring him here to inspire us all.”

Other events in the series have been just as inspiring, according to Johnson. Last Saturday, during the Opening Celebration, the Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir sang a rousing rendition of Spirit of a King in the Fleet Library at RISD. And on Thursday, January 24, students will have the opportunity to participate in a Change Through Non-Violence Workshop, where they can learn to develop techniques for conflict resolution.

“I hope that each individual who participates [in the series] will reflect on their personal sense of agency. We want to inspire people to action,” notes Johnson. “There are a million of different ways to make a difference. Everyone has gifts to share.” -Abigail Crocker

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tags: local/regional, public engagement, social responsibility, students

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.