Participants in the Social Justice Sewing Academy.
Photos courtesy of Social Justice Sewing Academy.
“I spent time before breakfast, after lunch, and before bed just sewing. When kids were partying, we were sewing. Although tiring, it was so worth it to make such a beautiful quilt.”
When was the last time you heard a 17 year old say that? These words are from a participant in the Social Justice Sewing Academy, which merges academic readings on social justice with lessons in sewing skills, all of which culminates in producing a topical quilt. The students were speaking about their Black Lives Matter quilt, which they made in part because of the bullying they have faced due to the color of their skin. With the quilt, they “could finally spread awareness in a way other than an Instagram post or a tweet.”
The Social Justice Sewing Academy is the brainchild of Sara Trail. By merging discussion on social justice with acts of sewing, Trail has created a curriculum to help build students up and allow them to thrive in a positive setting.
Trail’s education at UC Berkeley gave her a wide critical lens with which to view the world, but then she began mentoring students at a local high school. Seeing that those students did not see themselves reflected within their own school’s curriculum, Trail began giving them weekly readings on social justice to help them better understand where they stood in the world. She would tailor the readings for each specific student based on their own identities and chose them based on her course reading. These weekly readings gave her an idea. “What if I made a whole curriculum? So like one week we’d focus on Native Americans, the next weekend Asian Americans, the next weekend model minorities, the next weekend white privilege.”
She had been sewing for a while (having written a book with C&T Publishing and patterns for Simplicity!), but it wasn’t until after the death of Trayvon Martin that she made her first social-justice–related piece. The death of Martin, who had been just weeks apart from her in age, sparked an idea that she would eventually carry forward into the Social Justice Sewing Academy.
After giving her students readings, Trail soon realized it was art that would get the community involved; the research papers she was assigning (and the students were doing) weren’t enough to create a draw. “Since I love sewing and I love art, I’m like, what if we added an art aspect to this culturally relevant curriculum? That would therefore bring the community together because community loves art and art is so universal. You know, if we had an art show, people would come and you could speak about the things that you’ve learned.” So she began offering sewing lessons as well, teaching students the basics: how to quilt and how to make their own clothes.
This developed into an academy that can vary in length from six to eight weeks long, as it was in Berkeley, to a two-day workshop where Trail lectures one night and then students sew the next day, each leaving with their own 18” x 24” social justice quilt. She’s done workshops in Long Beach, Chicago, and Cambridge, along with a six-week program in Berkeley.
Trail, who will receive her MA from Harvard this spring and enter a PhD program this fall, has also spent time thinking about where she wants the academy to go. “I want SJSA to be a full-time after-school program; I want to develop the curriculum and do a ‘train the trainers’ weekend, where it could begin in high schools all across California and eventually expand. If we could just have a pilot where high schools could send me two or three teachers, I could do a whole two weeks of training and sewing instruction and machine safety, and then the curriculum and the ways to teach it.”
Students who have gone through the academy (kept anonymous because they are under 18) have nothing but great things to say about the experience. One student who made a quilt about the school-to-prison pipeline shares:
“I was really proud [of the quilt] because it wasn’t just about the art, but also what it stood for and I hope this quilt brings awareness and opens the eyes of more people around the world.”
Another participant noted that one of the enjoyable things about the program was that they were “able to convert what I felt into an art quilt.” And it’s this act of conversion that, along with the right combination of actionable steps, that allows the students to flourish and grow. It feeds them the knowledge they need to better move throughout the world—and hands them the skills with which to creatively express it. It allows them to see that activism is more than yelling and shouting; it is also sharing and making. It gives them the tools to share their innermost thoughts, critically discuss academic texts, and create their pajamas. And it is this combination of important things where Trail’s work shines: the program may culminate with a quilt, but it is a quilt of many layers on which to build.