Edgar Estrella with his painting titled Sublime, Angel's Gate Cultural Center.
Photo: Slobodan Dimitrov
Painting on right by Christopher Alvarez, AGCC.
Photo: Slobodan Dimitrov
Hidden in Plain Site: Student Artists Respond to Human Trafficking
March 1, 2016
by Jerri Allyn
“We enslave ourselves...by what we do, or by a self image...
We're slaves to the image we think people want us to be."
—Edgar Estrella, student artist, Angels Gate High School, San Pedro, CA
In The State of Human Trafficking in California, 2012, Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris, estimated that 700,000 people, many of them children, are kidnapped in America or smuggled into the United States from around the world each year. Hidden in Plain Site: Student Artists Respond, 2015, addressed this phenomenon. Participants’ goals with the project were to raise awareness, invite dialogue, and take action toward interrupting the exploitation, forced labor, and trafficking of human beings.
I recruited students from Angels Gate High School to participate in the project by sharing my experience of sexual assault and how I found my voice through the arts. I’m committed to supporting youth in finding their voices as well. My approach for engaging students through Exquisite Corpse Painting Workshops included asking that they explore their own experiences as related to confinement and freedom, dominance and submission, as well as their ideas about power — both over others and within ourselves. They did this through participating in the Surrealist drawing game of Exquisite Corpse. Fifteen student artists participated in workshops for a total of eighteen weeks.
Angels Gate is a continuation school (one of the last options available to students for graduating) and many of the teens are considered to be at-risk. Principal Joan D’Amore, known to leap at any opportunity that might support student success, took the “radical action” of embracing my project, despite its focus on an admittedly a challenging topic. She invited three teachers to work with me as an interdisciplinary team, introducing the topic in their English, Social Studies, and Biology classes. The instructors and two guest speakers brought attention to a range of issues raised by human trafficking and asked students to research, write, and, most importantly, report on tactics to avoid predators. In one example, we learned that one kind of trafficker recruits girls as young as thirteen years old. The idea is to employ seemingly innocent and charming young men to pose as potential boyfriends to the girls. Once vulnerable girls “fall in love,” the charmers draw them into the commercial sex trade. We were disturbed to learn that this has become a favored strategy among local gangs in Southern California. They can sell an ounce of heroine once, but they can sell a sex worker thousand of times. Not surprisingly, a number of these young women are tragically worked to death in the process.
I was assisted in the art workshops by the effervescent volunteer, Rosanna Scimeca, an artist and former high school teacher. At the completion of the workshops, Isabelle Lutterodt, Visual Arts Director at Angels Gate Cultural Center, offered the student artists an exhibition of their work (3- by 5-foot acrylic paintings on canvas) in the Angels Gate Community Gallery. These student artists were: Christopher Alvarez, Andrew Alcaraz, Deandra Blade, Jonathon Carrillo, Jacque Culpepper, Edgar Estrella, Yasmin Garcia, Samuel Jones, Miranda Juarez, Sam Lopez, Roland Smith, Rayleen Thompson, Emily Varela, Elizabeth White and Angel Zavala.
I am heartened by the way that all the participating students willingly pondered the tough issues raised by the workshops. They have become advocates for ending the phenomenon of human trafficking. Two of them came forward to ask advice of guest speakers about friends that they suspect are being trafficked. These students have become “on the street educators,” sharing the strategies they’ve learned to avoid this reprehensible trade and getting help for those in need.
Jerri Allyn is a community-based artist interested in civic engagement. The nature of her work moves fluidly between art settings, academia, and targeted communities, providing forums for multiple voices. Allyn creates site-oriented, interactive installations and performance art events that become a part of public life and build connections between the art world, activist organizations, and others through aligned interests. Her projects often include education programs that expand on scholarly and secular concerns. Feminist Art represents one of the lineages from the 70’s that have developed “performative interactions” characterized by engagement, dialogue and social change. She is a founding member of the collaborative performance groups, The Waitresses and Sisters of Survival, and has exhibited internationally and received awards including a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Italy; an International Lila Wallace Fellowship in Mexico; and National Endowment for the Arts grants. Allyn was Director of Education and Public Programs at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in NY (1994-98); the founding Director of ACT: Artists, Community and Teaching at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles (2004-08), USA.