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Breaking Through

Breaking Through

A visit from photojournalist and activist Richard Ross inspires RISD students to pursue social justice projects.

In a special workshop, photojournalist Richard Ross shared his experiences interviewing and taking portraits of incarcerated minors.

While working as an instructor at the Maryland School for the Deaf, Mark Desantis 16 SC made a deeply troubling discovery. Some of his students were consistently arriving to class pent-up, restless —even enraged. The culprit: neglect at home.

“Some of the students’ families never bothered to learn sign language,” he explains. “This breakdown in communication caused them to be left out of dinner table conversations and play dates with their siblings. Understandably, the social isolation caused them profound frustration and hurt feelings.”

To address this issue, Desantis is now drafting plans for a series of large-scale sculptures that exemplify the wildly expressive hand movements associated with American Sign Language (ASL). “The piece will sign, ‘I don’t hear you. You don’t see me,’” says the artist. “It’s a tribute to children who struggle to be recognized in a hearing-dominant society. And I hope it raises awareness.”

The son of a deaf father, Desantis has been ruminating on this heavy work for some time. But it was Art & Activism, a recent workshop hosted by Literary Arts + Studies Professor Jonathan Highfield and Richard Ross—a California-based professor, photojournalist and social activist—that inspired him to pursue the project.

The workshop was part of Highfield’s spring course, Caribbean Literature, which focuses on such issues as nationalism, Pan-Africanism, tourism and violence. Ross discussed how he found his voice as an artist and shared his latest book, Girls in Justice, a collection of heart-wrenching photographs and in-person interviews with incarcerated minors.

“My hope is that these grim tales push policy makers to reform legislation involving the US juvenile justice system,” Ross explained to the class. “Have you ever been locked in a closet? That’s how it feels to be placed in an isolation cell. This type of damaging punishment should never be inflicted on a child.”

The frank discussion also touched upon the vital role artists play in galvanizing social change. “As artists, you’re in the unique position to make something that emotionally resonates with the greater public,” noted Ross. “So if there’s a cause that matters to you, don’t be afraid to get involved and rattle some cages.”

Later in the night, students met up in the Tap Room for In the Face of Injustice, How Do Artists Respond?, a roundtable discussion on best practices for artists launching social justice projects. RISD faculty and staff and representatives from local nonprofits including AS220 Youth, Rhode Island for Community and Justice, RI Harvest Kitchen Project and Rhode Island Kids Count were also in attendance.

Assistant Professor of Photography Brian Ulrich invited his students to share in the electric brainstorming session and walked away with a feeling of elation. “In light of recent events—like the reported cases of egregious police brutality—people feel disempowered. We wonder what a piece of artwork, or a photograph, can actually accomplish,” noted Ulrich. “But these conversations are the start of real change.”

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