Lily Yeh and the Vias Creativa and Transformativa, Part 2

In her book, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms, artist/activist Lily Yeh tells the story of one of her projects — that of the Dandelion School for the children of migrant workers outside of Beijing.  She worked for five years with teachers and children there with amazing results to create “a school like no other in the world” out of a school of dreary concrete that mirrored the social disregard of the children’s lives.

The entrance to Dandelion Middle School  as redone by Yeh and students. Photographer unknown. From Dandelion Middle School Facebook page.

About her work, portrait painter Robert Shetterly writes:

William Sloane Coffin said, ‘The highest form of spirituality is justice.’ Lily’s art is the pursuit of justice and it raises everyone’s spirit. Her art insists on accountability — the artist to the community and then the community to itself.[1]

In her book, Lily shares her story and her philosophy of education. She speaks lovingly of the eighteen years she spent in the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia, where she worked with hundreds of teachers and students from primary grades to high school creating everything from banners, murals, gardens, mosaics, dances, stories, poems, and even a full costumed theater performance. But above all they were creating a “vital, joyful community” from a broken neighborhood.

Lily Yeh painting the mural in the Village’s Angel Alley, with community leaders James “Big Man” Maxton and Jo Jo Williams. Photographer unknown; from the Village of Arts and Humanities website.

Visiting schools in Philadelphia, she often found them paved with gray cement and encircled with cyclone fences. She wrote, “Entering a school there often felt like entering a place of confinement. It does not inspire learning.”[2] It proved to be a challenge to turn a concrete jungle into an engaged community.

         Then, as she became transformed by her experience in Philadelphia, she also transformed the city. Lily writes:

Children of the Village build a Tree of Life in Ile Ife Park. Photographer unknown; from the Village of Arts and Humanities website.

People called inner-city North Philadelphia “the badlands” because of its prevailing decrepitude, poverty, drug dealing, and violence. But this area contained invaluable hidden treasures. Numerous abandoned properties and vacant lots offered creative opportunities. The transformation of abandoned lands into art parks and gardens became the bone structure of our art project. …

During my sojourn there from 1986 to 2004, the Village staff, community residents, and volunteers transformed over two hundred empty lots into seventeen parks and gardens, inducing a two-acre tree farm. The Village became a national model for urban revitalization through land transformation, creation of beauty, and grassroots actions. It was there that I realized that art is a powerful tool for social change and that the artist can be at the center of that transformation.[3]

Lily Yeh is a moving example of how we can transform education and learning, art and community, using our creativity and determination.

[1]   “William Sloane Coffin said….” Yeh, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms (Oakland, Ca: New Village Press, 2011), 7.
[2]   “a ‘vital, joyful community’….inspire learning.” Ibid., 8.
[3]   “People called inner-city Philadelphia the….” Ibid., 21.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, pp. 269f.

Banner image: “Village of the Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia.” Photo by Eugene Kim on Flickr

Queries for Contemplation

A “vital joyful community” seems to be the ultimate goal of Yeh and her work with communities that at first glimpse seem broken.  What lessons do you derive from her work and her use of art to bring life alive again and healing?

Do you agree with Coffin that the “highest form or spirituality is justice?”  What are the implications of that for our work and our value systems and our institutions and professions?

“Art is a powerful tool for social change,” concludes Lily Yeh.  Do you agree?  What follows from that?  How does that–could that–change Education?  Religion?  Media?  Other institutions?

Recommended Reading

 While Matthew Fox recognizes that Eckhart has influenced everyone from Julian of Norwich to Eckhart Tolle, Karl Marx to Carl Jung, and Annie Dillard to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.

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