A Conversation with Social Justice Sewing Academy Explores Community Activism and the Power of Remembering Through Quilts
March 11, 2022
In a time when witnessing inequity is like digging into an already numb wound, and participating in surface-level social justice is as easy as recycling digital shares, the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) offers the power of touch. This is a COVID world after all, and we know that touch is priceless. Holding someone or something you love, experiencing the smell, shape, and weight of other’s bodies reminds us that we are not just brains experiencing the trauma. Inequity is real. Loss is real, and it violently impacts young people in underserved communities every day.
SJSA empowers youth to use their voices to advocate for social change through sewing and textile arts. The organization works with kids and teens to make quilt blocks using their original art that helps them express the systemic injustices in their lives. These complex pieces are then sewn together with the help of experts across generations–creating community, sparking conversations about advocacy, and connecting people of all backgrounds to social justice issues. What’s admirable about founder Sara Trail’s vision is that it requires tactile processing of issues that often seem bigger than all of us. In this project, every stitch is felt, and it is not a practice that participants must endure alone. From design to completion, each person is required to spend time sitting with these stories in a physical way, which creates room for grief, remembrance, education, and critique.
Colossal contributor Gabrielle Lawrence sat with program director Stephanie Valencia to talk about the work of honoring the victims of violence and their families through community art, supporting young entrepreneurs with creative or social justice-oriented businesses, and most importantly, giving people something to hold on to.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Gabrielle: Why fabric? We know that quilting has a deep history, but I’d love to know what kind of impact this medium has had on people in the present.
Stephanie: I think a deeper meaning of fabric has developed over time, and we’re seeing the results of that now. Initially, fabric was Sara’s (the founder’s) go-to choice. She learned to sew at a really early age from her grandmother, and she has carried that love of fabric and sewing into all things that she’s done. Now, we stay with fabric because it allows for us to use our intergenerational model, and that has been so beneficial for everyone in the community.
When you work with fabric, it’s different than other mediums because it’s really time-consuming. It’s also very forgiving. When it comes to youth, they’re able just to pick these fun, expressive colors and build something beautiful from it. And we often tell them like, “you don’t have to worry about perfection. You’re just making art.” It can also be changed easily. It can be pulled up. It can be picked out. It can be replaced. It can be stitched over. Then we send the piece to be finished by our embroidery artists, who generally come from a very different demographic than our young youth artists. Our embroidery volunteers are middle-aged, upper-middle-class, and tend to be White. And you know, people from that middle-class background don’t know disenfranchisement. They’re able to actually learn from the youth who have created these fabric pieces.
Gabrielle: Can you say more about that? What is it like to have two different demographics with different systemic and social realities collaborating on these projects?
Stephanie: Even though the embroiderers are White middle-class folks, we try to give our youth full control over the voice. They can send out a statement asking for more additions, details, etc. I don’t know if you embroider, but it can take like 20 hours to work on a block. It really just depends on how much detail they’re asked to add. With an adult person who has never faced growing up in a neighborhood where they hear gunshots every night, it really gives them the opportunity to sit with that piece and learn what other people’s lives may be like, which leads to discussion around different areas of social justice.
Gabrielle: Can you walk us through the process from idea to completion?
Stephanie: So with quilting, we have the youth artists who choose the fabrics. They create the art. Then you have the embroidery volunteer that sits with the piece for 10-20 hours, then it gets sent to us, and we do community sew days. There are 12-15 people that volunteer to put this quilt together, and then it goes to our long armor and gets bound and displayed. All and all, you have like 20 people touching one piece of art. And those layers really form a bond with the community that is a symbol for everyone coming together.
Gabrielle: Besides working with kids who are affected by social injustice, how else do you try to lift them up?
Stephanie: We actually created an incubator this last year with a grant that we received that gives these kids an opportunity to receive $1,000 towards a startup project that they wanted to work on in their communities. They work with Lauren, our director. We’re making strides in being able to branch out into different communities of color with sewing and just kind of upset that status quo. Bringing youth into the sewing world is huge because the youth generally don’t tend to be interested in sewing. We’ve adapted to become more welcoming to those without interest and/or resources by working with glue in our workshops and then having somebody else do the hand sewing. Sometimes our kids carry a lot of trauma around these things. We’re trying to get better at addressing those needs as they come up in this work.
Gabrielle: Well on that note, what’s the vision for the future?
Stephanie: We know we want to grow the business incubator and provide opportunities for the youth who want to stay with us. We want to make them ambassadors and have them help lead workshops. We have one young lady named Jocelyn who’s doing that right now. She recently hosted a 6-week Upward Bound workshop, which was beautiful. Sara really believes in mentorship so as we grow I see more mentoring opportunities. The goal is to create a strong and empowering environment for youth to grow.
Gabrielle: I know that you also give some of these quilts to families of people who have lost their lives to racial and social injustice. I love that it’s a tactile experience. They get to hold it and interact with it. What has that experience been like for those who have lost loved ones?
Stephanie: Yes, so that is actually a new project that we launched about a year and a half ago. It’s called our Remembrance Quilt Project. Like you said, we do give the families of victims who have lost their lives to systemic racism or institutions of violence something tangible to hold on to. There’s so much comfort that these families gained from this project. So often, when someone loses a loved one, you cherish their items for a while. And then eventually, their items end up in a box, in the back of a closet, or in an attic somewhere. This really does give the family something to hold on to and use every day. Beyond comfort, it’s reflection, as well as memory. Every time they see or touch that quilt, they can remember the good times.
So often, when someone loses a loved one, you cherish their items for a while. And then eventually, their items end up in a box, in the back of a closet, or in an attic somewhere. This really does give the family something to hold on to and use every day. Beyond comfort, it’s reflection, as well as memory.—Stephanie Valencia
When families share their stories we have more individuals reach out to us for information. We’re able to spread awareness about how severe community violence is in America, attract more volunteers, and bring comfort, love, and memories to the families impacted by that violence.
Gabrielle: Excellent. Where do you get the fabric and materials from? I’m just wondering if there’s another community component there or some sustainability involved.
Stephanie: The majority of our fabric is donated. It really just depends on which project you’re discussing. When it comes to our youth quilts, and the community quilts that we make in schools and detention centers, it’s largely donations. We have sewing shops that will send things or just different quilters in our volunteer base who will send a box here and there. For the most part, that sustains our Youth Art Project. We do purchase fabric when making the quilt top because we like to have a strong theme and for all the colors to match. We actually have one quilt called “Sustainability” that was made from recycled denim. That was a really cool project. We try to use what is available with minimal purchase so that we are not adding to the landfills and quick fashion.
Gabrielle: I love that your community is mindful of that. If you feel comfortable sharing, what have your largest obstacles been? Or has the community been totally receptive?
Stephanie: The largest obstacles would be the…hmm…how do I phrase this? Quilting is dominated by a certain demographic of individuals. And these individuals do not like the idea of bringing any form of activism or political statements into quilting. We’ve had a few obstacles. Sara designed patterns, and she had a book at like the age of 12, Sew with Sara, which was like making pajama pants at birthday parties. She’s established, but then when she tried to merge the social justice aspect, she was basically shunned from the sewing community. The people who ran and attended the quilting shows used to welcome her with open arms before her first activism piece, which was the Trayvon quilt. All of a sudden they were not as kind to her. They rejected the Trayvon piece. Her voice no longer had a place in the quilt world. Still today, we’ll be at a quilt show, or we will have a piece featured in a magazine, and she’ll get messages on Instagram saying that she’s indoctrinating youth and brainwashing them. The quilt world has become more accepting, but there still is a pocket of people who do not feel that we belong here.
Recently, I went to a quilt show. One lady stated loudly while walking past so that I could hear, “I didn’t come here to see these people’s faces,” referring to the people who have lost their lives and are featured on our remembrance banners. We also had a Block of the Month pattern feature. The challenge was to make these 20 blocks and sew them into a quilt. Sara submitted what she felt was the most PG block she could find that still had a good message. It was our inequality block, which has a pencil with an eraser and the word “injustice” is under it. The eraser is erasing the “in”. She got so much slack for this block. People on the museum’s website were saying there is no such thing as injustice, that she had no place in the quilt world, basically bashing this young kid’s art by saying that it was ugly and that they were going to boycott this year’s quilt of the month. We do still face a lot of adversity, but the volunteers that we do have are fantastic.
Gabrielle: That’s really odd to me because quilting is for storytelling and capturing history, you know? It fits social justice so well.
Stephanie: Well, sewing has become an art of affluence, and you can see the prejudice that is linked to that. So though it did start out as a lot of sewing circles and storytelling, or something that came out of necessity, it has grown into a privilege. To buy a yard of fabric can cost you anywhere between $13 and $30, depending on the piece of fabric that you want. It has become cheaper to buy in stores than it is to make. It really just sits with the middle class. A sewing machine is hundreds of dollars. That’s not something everybody can afford anymore.
Gabrielle: Thank you for explaining that. I think it’s really important for readers and potential supporters to understand. Where does social justice education come into the process? I know people are encouraged to sit with their feelings and the stories of loved ones passed on, but is there formal discussion? Or is there a curriculum?
Stephanie: Our volunteers reached out to us at one point with a lot of questions. On our Instagram, they’ll ask questions like, “How can I better be a better ally? Can someone help me understand this block on colorism?” We created an anti-racist guidebook created off of some learning units that were on our Facebook. We upload it for the volunteers to be able to do their own research using a curated and scaffolded model. For the most part, our volunteers will sit and read a book that kind of goes along with their square or their project.
If we’re talking about the Remembrance Quilts, the volunteer will actually research the individual because we ask that they personalize the quilt as much as possible. If we find out that their favorite color was blue, we make the quilt in blue. Our volunteers are always doing work to learn and to grow.
People can also come together and share when we have community sew days. Those are held in the Bay Area at different quilt shops. We invite everybody down and cater a nice lunch. As everyone’s sewing, there’s a lot of discussion that occurs where we talk about situations that they face or questions that they have about social justice. Sometimes a block that one of the kids made will spark a whole discussion on food deserts or school shootings. That’s really the time that the community discusses and grows together.
Sometimes a block that one of the kids made will spark a whole discussion on food deserts or school shootings. That’s really the time that the community discusses and grows together.—Stephanie Valencia
Gabrielle: After the blocks are done, how are they used as tools to educate? How do people get to interact with them?
Stephanie: We have exhibitions. It’s been a little slow with COVID shutdowns, but they go on display in museums. We had a large presentation in Pennsylvania recently of about 25 quilts. We had one in Florida. I just got off the phone with a lady who would like us to send our Cuban series to San Diego. Cornell University reached out, so we’ll be in New York. We also go to all the different quilt shows. Lots of institutions reach out, and they asked to host the quilts. This leads to a community discussion in places we haven’t necessarily worked in.
Oftentimes, they’ll ask to have a workshop along with it, and Sara will present. That kind of creates the conversation around it. We have a block that sparks a lot of dialogue, and it’s about rape. I mean, just being able to see that kids 12, 13, and 14 are dealing with these very heavy situations starts the dialogue.
Gabrielle: I have a personal question if you don’t mind. How did you get involved?
Stephanie: I actually used to live in Utah, and it just so happens that a friend asked me to meet her at the convention center. It’s like a split convention center, so there are two sides. I’m not paying attention, and I purchased a ticket. I went in and ended up at a quilt show, which is not where I’m supposed to be. I had already paid for it, and my friend wasn’t there yet, so I explored a little bit. That’s when I first saw the SJSA exhibit and was able to interact with the quilts. Sara happened to be there, and she just explained a lot of things to me. Coming from a really conservative community, there was a lot that I didn’t know. As a spectator, I was educated. I wanted to learn, why are these kids facing this? And from there, I just really grew in my knowledge of social justice.
I actually held a workshop in Utah that sparked the creation of our critical race theory quilt. It took a lot of unlearning because the education that I had was not up to par and was not teaching through an equitable lens. As I grew, I became more active in SJSA, and I became so passionate about their mission. Working with the kids and even adults means everybody’s on a different level, but we come together to create a better education for everyone.
Gabrielle: Sounds like you were right where you were supposed to be. As a segue, I was just wondering if I could learn more about the culture of the volunteers who help out. I didn’t know that everyone involved was a volunteer before our conversation. It’s so much more powerful when people are committed to donating their time because they believe in what they’re doing on another level.
Stephanie: It is. It is phenomenal. Everybody plays their part, and everybody is so dedicated to the mission. Initially, when Sara was kind of explaining to me the way everything worked, it was really difficult for me to believe that people who had never met her were willing to spend 60 hours embroidering a mini quilt. Just knowing how passionate everybody is about social change makes it breathtaking to be on this team. I love how equitable it is no matter your position within SJSA. Everybody’s treated with the utmost respect no matter what your talent is, and no matter if you sew or you don’t. We will find a place for you. Everybody’s really close-knit.