The Art of Advocating with Mel Chin

Mel Chin has been creating art for decades, spanning the cultural, social, and political environments of each period while leaving his unique, lasting mark. Each piece his own commentary on a moment in time, a lesson on what it means to be human and feel.

The recently named MacArthur Genius awardee brought those lessens to the aptly named Center of Life in Hazelwood for GBA’s Socially Engaged Art and Advocating for Healthy Schools workshop last week. Educators involved with GBA’s Green & Healthy Schools Academy filled the room for a conversation on how to incorporate art as a method of teaching sustainability and climate related issues.

The focus was on Chin’s groundbreaking Fundred project and the effect of lead on children.

Fundred is a way to educate children, not scare them, but to show each child how powerful they are,” he noted.

The project began when Chin visited New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Rubble was still piled high and loved ones from the impacted community were still missing as he walked through the destruction.

“I was overcome with emotion,” Chin recalled. “As an artist, I felt inadequate. Whatever I could’ve created wouldn’t have captured the pain that people were experiencing in that moment.”

Instead, Chin decided to focus his energy on one of the more concealed problems in New Orleans and around the country: lead contamination. Hurricane Katrina had brought the issue to the surface in New Orleans as the availability of clean water post-storm dwindled thanks to old infrastructure and the federal government’s insipid response.

He explained to the teachers and educators in the room that Fundred was a way of giving all individuals, mainly children, a voice in the fight for a healthier environment. The project began with children drawing their own hundred-dollar bills. Designed to look like the real thing, the bills would eventually be stacked up and delivered to congress with the demand for a one-to-one exchange.

“It’s all about the Benjamin’s with politicians, we had to show that our commitment was solid,” Chin explained to the group.

The project eventually made its way around the country, and just like lead contamination, it touched every corner of the nation. In 2016, as the Flint water crisis was exposed to the rest of the nation (Flint still doesn’t have clean water), Fundred was once again thrust into the spotlight.

Chin spoke about his time in Flint and how the community began to rally around Fundred as a way of restoring some sense of control over their current condition.

“We had to walk this fine line between hope and despair,” Chin explained. “We couldn’t make this issue seem like it was unfixable, especially when working with children.”

The Fundred project represents the intersection of education, art, and activism in a way that is accessible for students.

“It was important not to force them to do anything. No Fundred drawings are accepted if they’re forced or for a grade, that’s not what this effort is about,” Chin mentioned.

As he concluded his talk, Chin sat for a Q&A session with the educators as they picked his brain on how to implement their own versions of Fundred into their curriculum. Chin made sure that every educator left with a stack of Fundreds, after they completed their own of course, so that Pittsburgh and West Virginia students could be included in the installation.

“You’ve got to be willing to draw! Just like your students!”

As the teachers and educators were scribbling on their Fundreds, Chin left them with a final thought after promising to return.

“Remember, you cannot have a pact with nature without creating a pact with our fellow human beings.”


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