The Art of Social Justice

The weekly Social Justice Colloquium continues to offer the opportunity for insightful dialogue on Monday afternoons in the Battelle Thompkins humanities lab. This week attendees were able to experience firsthand the potential for artistic expression to grapple with issues of social justice. The three presenters this week, Caleen Jennings, Sybil Roberts, and Cara Gabriel, each showcased brief excerpts from their dramatic or spoken works, before explaining the context in which the pieces were created.

Sybil opened by reciting an excerpt from her piece titled, “I am a Drum”. This emotional piece is based upon historical events and follows the experience of Naphtali, a young pregnant woman who was violently abused by police officers before being taken into custody. Naphtali was participating in a peaceful demonstration, and through the dramatic voice of Sybil her unjust treatment at the hands of officers of the law could be felt secondhand by those in attendance.

Cara Gabriel also delivered an excerpt from her own original work, this time a part of her play “I am the Gentry”, which chronicles her own lived experiences in a particular neighborhood. Alternating between humor and sober reflection, this excerpt gave an alternative perspective to the issues of urban development, and through analogy compared the treatment of the neighborhood to that of an abandoned dog, who’s past is disregarded and is instead dealt with only in the present.

Finally, Caleen Jennings gave a powerful performance, drawing on an excerpt from her piece “Prevention”. She began by describing a child who has been neglected, but as the child grows up it becomes apparent that he is, in fact, a perpetrator of gun violence. As this fact is revealed to the audience, Cara Gabriel and Sybil Roberts distribute pictures of those convicted of armed violence in this country with a plain script that read “number of victims.” The end of Dr. Jennings’ performance was delivered amongst a flurry of small photographs which were scattered about the room, each one a picture of actual victims of gun violence.

The power of what these three women delivered this week lies not only in their considerable talent as artists; but also in their dedication to furthering social justice. Each piece was meant to elicit an emotional response, something that is often impossible through ethnographic or other academic writing. For an example of their work, you can watch this video of Caleen Jennings delivering a performance on American University’s campus.


Interested in learning more about social justice and public anthropology? We’d love to see you at our next event. For a list of future speakers please see the Social Justice Series. If you’d like to learn more about our program, please check out the Public Anthropology page.

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