With the Young Actors Summer Institute (YASI) just around the corner, we wanted to highlight one of the program’s most unique courses: YASI Art and Activism. Here, students learn how art, in all of its forms, can be used to create social change – and culminates with students creating their own pieces of activist art. 

Pre-COVID, YASI was a month-long theater camp where students could choose which classes they’d take throughout the session. One of those classes was Art and Activism. With YASI pivoting to week-long sessions due to the pandemic, Art and Activism became a week-long opportunity for students to engage in hands-on social justice work through the arts. 

“The students had always been really politically engaged, and especially more so in these times,” Director of Education Jordan Butterfield said. “So we wanted an outlet for them, and having its instructor Michelle Cruz as both his teaching artist and a community organizer allowed for this wonderful connection between the education department and the community engagement department.” 

In last year’s week-long program, students spent the week with different local activist artists who —  Guests included dancer Sokeo Ross, filmmaker Claire Andrade-Watkins, musician Big Luxe, and Trinity Rep resident company member Joe Wilson, Jr. Each artist brought their expertise in both their chosen art forms and the areas of social justice they were most passionate about, whether veterans’ affairs or racial justice to LGBTQ+ rights. Michelle said the goal of these sessions was to show the myriad of ways one can be an artist and activist.  

Michelle also made sure the class went out in the community each day to look at art on display in the community. 

“We’d go for walks downtown and near the lower Brown University area to see the public activist art,” she said. “And we’d stand outside the Trinity Rep lobby, looking at the windows because we had commissioned local activist artists like Kendel Joseph, who did an amazing portrait of Rep. John Lewis. And we still have art up of Joe Wilson, Jr. by Angela Gonzalez (AGONZA) and of Diahann Carroll and Harry Belafonte by Jess Brown. I wanted students to see that this work is being done in our own community. So then they worked together on a mural encouraging people to vote, and it’s on Dyer Street.” 

Throughout the week, students create their own pieces of activist art. This could be a visual piece, a song, a skit, or any other artistic medium that’s used to spread their message. Last year, Michelle hoped to take the class to the State House to present their work, but this was cancelled due to the weather that day. Instead, students performed for their parents in the theater, but Michelle wants students to try going to the State House again this year. 

“One year before the pandemic, a group of students rewrote the Pledge of Allegiance to break down harmful language that focused on white, cisgender, land-owning men when it was originally written,” Jordan said. “A patron who was watching the final sharing stormed out during that, so the work did its job. Any good activism will ruffle feathers.” 

Some of last year’s projects included a theater piece about respecting a nonbinary person’s pronouns and a visual piece about mental health unrest in the state’s prison system. 

“It was pretty transformational in the sense that some of the kids didn’t know each other but they could come together on an issue and reflect on that,” Michelle said. “And as the younger generation, it was really great to hear their perspective and call to action.” 

YASI Art and Activism runs July 11–15, 2022, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm, for students entering grades 8–12. Visit trinityrep.com/yasi to learn more and register.