Jeanann Verlee uses her work to bring awareness to issues surrounding mental health. She has authored three books of poetry…
Florida school uses art displays from around the world to promote diversity and inclusion
Judy Woodruff: And now to Sarasota, Florida, where large-scale artworks are being used to teach students about diversity, inclusion and mental health.
This comes at a time when there is growing controversy in Florida and school districts across the country over how and whether to teach about racism in America.
Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault went to see how the exhibit encourages inclusion.
It's part of her ongoing series looking at solutions to racism and it's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Student: I think they make these paintings so they can encourage us to be ourselves.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Students like these are brought by the busloads to Sarasota's Bayfront Park, a normally popular tourist attraction featuring dramatic views of the harbor, tourist boats, and restaurants.
Student: You can be strong and powerful and still cry.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: On this and many other days, students learn about race, mental health, gender, and disability, all depicted on 50 billboard-sized images created by students and artists from all over the world.
It's all the work of Embracing Our Differences, a local nonprofit, which, in its 19 years, has reached over 475,000 students with this annual exhibition that includes art from students in over 120 countries. This year's theme, enriching lives through diversity and inclusion, illustrates the concerns of many students, including issues of equality, anxiety, the influence of social media, and the aftermath of the pandemic.
Year after year, high school student docents lead hundreds of elementary students, fifth graders on this day, through the works, asking what they see.
How many of you learned from this exhibit? Raise your hands. And how many of you loved it? Raise your hands.
Sarah Wertheimer, the executive director of Embracing Our Differences, told me about the exhibition's timely themes and what it's like to have students back at the exhibit after two years.
Sarah Wertheimer, Executive Director, Embracing Our Differences: It's been amazing to have the students back in person here, able to really interact with one another in such a different way than on the computer screen. So, it's been positive in so many ways. There have been some challenges.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Like what?
Sarah Wertheimer: Some students have a little bit more difficulty being able to express themselves. They have been in isolation. They have been either on their Zoom screen or they have been told not to interact with others who they don't know as well.
But, fortunately, the majority are excited to be able to express themselves and to connect with one another.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Tell me about feeling. How does it feel more inclusive?
Sarah Wertheimer: Mental health issues has been something that's really been able to be discussed much more in recent years than it ever was, and especially over the past two years, students and adults have been able to recognize how important it is for us to be open about our mental health struggles.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Mental health is one, but as you walk around this exhibition, you see a lot having to do with diversity and inclusion.
How different is, you think, the attitudes these days than, say, when you first started this all those years ago?
Sarah Wertheimer: I would definitely say that, today, it feels more divided than it has in the past. These last two years especially, tensions have been higher. We have had more pushback in certain ways, or parents that are more resistant to their students participating in the program.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: When you say pushback, what do you mean?
Sarah Wertheimer: So, some of the parents are saying that we are indoctrinating their children or, in general, that this type of work is indoctrination. And what we're constantly trying to explain to them is that our programs are really student-driven.
When we're down here at the exhibit, we train our docents to use visual thinking strategies. So they're actually asking students questions the whole time. They're not telling them about the artwork and telling them what to believe. They're actually asking the students what they see in the artwork, and what makes them think that.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: But you have gotten calls and criticisms from some parents who don't like what you're doing.
Sarah Wertheimer: Yes.
So, because we're an opt-in program -- you know, it's optional. If someone wants to go on a field trip, their parent does have to sign that permission slip. So, because of that, it does help, where, if a parent really doesn't want their kid doing this, then they have that opportunity not to.
And that's what we explain to the parent as well. And then we really try to explain to the parent what we're doing when we're here at the park.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: And do you hear from young people when they come here, oh, that's not what I heard from my parents?
Sarah Wertheimer: So, fortunately, when students are down here at the exhibit, we actually don't hear the negativity from them. Students look at this artwork, and they're able to have these open and honest conversations.
And, a lot of times, they're really inspired by the artwork. And seeing that it comes from kids as young as them, that it comes from all over the world, they're able to connect with it in personal ways.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: What actually keeps you going year after year after year?
Sarah Wertheimer: So, year after year, when we hear from the teachers and we hear from the students what actually occurred at their field trip, how it made them feel after, how they spoke to someone else differently after that experience, that's what keeps us going.
That's what gives us hope that the future and that our youth are going to make it a better place for all of us eventually.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: But how much change have you seen?
Sarah Wertheimer: We have seen so much change, especially with our youngest students.
And that's where we're able to see the change in, the classroom, the culture at the school. And it feels more welcoming. It feels more inclusive.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: And what are you hoping these young students will do, in terms of the toxic atmosphere we have in this country now when it comes to race? Are you hoping that these students themselves can make a difference?
Sarah Wertheimer: Absolutely.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Really?
Sarah Wertheimer: Absolutely.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: They're very young.
Sarah Wertheimer: They are.
But we get to see them grow up, from being younger students going on the field trips to students in our high school coexistence clubs, who then lead the younger students around on their tours. And we get to see already that change they have made, and then how much they plan on being activists for human rights and for social justice. And that's what we're really hopeful.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Sarah Wertheimer, thank you so much.
Embracing Our Differences seems so much like what we need in this country and the world right now. Thank you for doing what you do.
Sarah Wertheimer: Thank you so much.