Youth leaders, led by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, stormed the United Nations last week, demanding a radical shift in the way the world responds to climate change and other societal ills, including poverty. But Minnesotans don’t have to look far to witness equally impressive young people sharing ideas and energy to compel social change. On Oct. 5, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) hosts its first “Creative Fuel” youth summit, planned and run by teens, to explore how art can build empathy and bridges and, in the process, protect our planet. We asked Mia Art Team member and event co-chair Ursula Girdwood, 16, to say more about the day and why she remains optimistic about the future.
Q: You’re a member of Mia’s Art Team. What does that entail?
A: I’m one of 10 high school students, ages 14 to 18, who meet weekly to plan team-led events and help facilitate other Mia events. We get paid. It’s a really good job for a high school student.
Q: Especially an artist such as yourself. When did the artistic light bulb go on for you?
A: I come from a family of artists. My mom works at the Walker Art Center. My dad works in an arts district in Brooklyn, N.Y. I got my first Polaroid at [age] 9 and started taking pictures at slumber parties. Then I started using it to take photographs of my friends playing glorified dress-up; very dramatic, low-quality pictures of them wearing outfits that I hate now. I still do photography to show the world. I do drawing for more personal use.
Q: When did you realize that art could be a tool for social change?
A: My mom is very involved in the sociopolitical scene and does a lot of work in our neighborhood. She taught me about making sure the arts are accessible to everybody, not just this “bougie” thing separated from the rest of the world. She’s encouraged me to take action, too. I’m a member of the Young Peoples Action Coalition, which encourages middle and high school students throughout the Twin Cities to work on issues like cops in the schools, making sure their training fits the job. At Southwest High School, where I’m a senior, I was part of a large team that helped to organize a day of justice.
Q: Tell us about the Youth Summit.
A: It’s a free, all-day event, from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mia, for people ages 14 to 20 and adults who are committed to youth advocacy. It’s a lot about the intersection of art and social action regarding issues like racial justice and gentrification; the connections between all things political and social. We’ll have a panel featuring three keynote speakers who merge art and politics.
Q: Can you share their names?
A: Ashawnti Sakina Ford specializes in social justice and theater. Ricardo Levins Morales is a writer and visual artist. H. Adam Harris is an actor, director and cultural equity consultant. In addition to their presentations, we’ll have many other activities, including gallery tours led by our team, art-making events and a breakout session exploring the intersection of climate change, economics and social justice, after which we’ll make art and take steps for action.
Q: What’s a good example of art as politics?
A: I saw a really good exhibit in London over the summer that demonstrates how art reflects politics. Someone designed a shoe, but attached was a flashlight for people trying to cross the border. Data alone can’t always express the seriousness of a social issue. With art, there are so many ways you can go about it.
Q: The day sounds ambitious. Are you nervous?
A: Not really. We have the entire art team helping and adult Mia employees to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Q: What do you hope teens walk away thinking and/or doing?
A: I would hope they’d take away the idea that art can be a way to process change and cope with sad parts of our history and our current situations. I hope that teens who come can see how these artists have used art to make change and change their own attitudes about life.
Q: What misconceptions might older people hold about your generation?
A: So many (laughs). Maybe that our generation is too dramatic, too sensitive, that we can’t find the humor in things. The reality is that some of the jokes today are told at the expense of people who are being taken advantage of; they’re jokes that aren’t funny. [They say,] Oh, you’re so sensitive about climate change.
Q: Yeah. Definitely not funny. Speaking about climate change, do you and your friends believe there’s no turning back, that the damage is irreversible?
A: It’s a 50-50 split. People a few years younger than me say, “We’re the generation that’s going to watch the world end.” My age group believes that certain aspects of climate change are irreversible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still think bigger and more creatively about how to solve the problem.
Q: So, let the Youth Summit begin!
A: Youth-based and youth-led is powerful. This is a great way to start.
Creative Fuel: A Youth Summit is a free, all-day event Oct. 5 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. If you are ages 14 to 20, or are an adult committed to youth advocacy, register at new.artsmia.org/programs/teen/youth-summit