Addressing social justice through art

By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences

PULLMAN, Wash. – A graduation cap, winding stairs, prison bars, open books, a happy family, a dangling key — these and many other meaningful images play across a vibrant mural created by social-justice minded WSU students to convey a transformative message.

The 4-by-8-foot painting titled “CHANGE” outlines various life-course options and urges viewers to actively engage in transformation, particularly regarding youth justice in America. It is now on public display in WSU’s Compton Union Building.

Krystal Roig

The visually arresting mural is the handiwork of criminal justice and criminology doctoral student and instructor Krystal Roig-Palmer and four undergraduates who recently took her course on juvenile justice and corrections. It is the second mural project she designed for WSU student volunteers to complement their classroom studies.

“It’s utilizing art in a positive way to advocate for really talking about things that matter and where we can make change,” Roig-Palmer said.

The “CHANGE” team incorporated symbols of success, failure, education, prosperity, hope and love to illustrate a variety of possible experiences and transformations along pathways into, out of, and around the juvenile justice system.

A 100-year timeline threads between the images to remind viewers that making positive changes in the system requires also examining its history and evolution.

From classroom to real world

“Rather than ‘you have information, you test on it, you have information, you test on it,’ this was more like an application, taking what we were learning in the classroom and applying it to something that would reach other people,” said Mikala Ewert, a May graduate from Woodland, Wash., and a member of both mural-making teams. “We each got to pull from experiences of our own or people we know and connect it with classwork to see an overall picture.”

Last spring, Ewert and other students in Roig-Palmer’s class on criminal justice/women’s studies partnered with Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse (ATVP) and the WSU Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) in creating a mural to raise awareness about domestic violence and social justice.

Titled “Face the Music,” it features Lady Justice, a symbol of the students’ hope for fairness and their belief in a better future for survivors of domestic violence. It now hangs in the ATVP office, 1125 NW Nye Street in Pullman.

“Our hope in supporting (projects) like this is that students will learn more about real-world issues and have the opportunity to create real, lasting change,” said Erin McIlraith, CCE marketing coordinator.

Voicing ideas through art

CHANGE unveiling in the Terrell Library Atrium
CHANGE unveiling in the Terrell Library Atrium drew students and faculty from across campus.

The “CHANGE” muralists each put in more than 40 hours of work, from brainstorming the concept to applying the final brush strokes. A generous donor provided acrylic paint and other materials, and students in fine arts, led by engineering technician Tim Doebler, constructed the frame.

Participating students were drawn to the mural projects for their own, individual reasons, Roig-Palmer said.

“Art gives people a voice,” she said. It transcends human diversity as a language common to all generations, races, ethnicities, religions and cultures, and it has the power to forever change a community, a nation, and even the entire world when viewers are open to the artist’s voice, she said.

In her 16-plus years of work in criminal justice and criminology, she has guided creation of more than a dozen community murals, working primarily with homeless and at-risk youth to enable their personal expression.

“It means a lot to look at such a broad accomplishment and say, ‘I did this. This is my work. This is my voice.’ Whether they’re coming from a positive space or one that needs healing, every person involved in making a mural is leaving a legacy for every viewer to find their own meaning,” Roig-Palmer said.

Learning, changing, improving

“The idea I hope viewers will take from our work is that there is potential for change, especially in our juvenile justice system to make it more effective,” said Anahi Trejo, a rising senior from Pasco, Wash., and member of the “CHANGE” mural team who is double-majoring in criminal justice and Spanish. “Change can go both ways — good or bad — but regardless of which way it goes, we can learn and improve from it,” she said.

(Click the following link to listen to audio comments from student artists.)

For Ewert, who double-majored in criminal justice and psychology, the project was a transformative experience, challenging her to explore her artistic talents while working with others to examine complex social justice issues and express their views.

“The murals added a great new aspect to my education, and being creative helped ease the stress of college and classes,” Ewert said.

Turning “a blank piece of plywood into this beautiful piece of art that we’re all so proud of was a huge thing,” she said. “It’s also important to know that if you step outside the mold of your career path just a little bit, you might find something you love that can also help make a difference in our world.”

The student mural projects align with the WSU Grand Challenges goal of advancing opportunity and equity through social justice. They further the university’s Drive to 25 efforts by delivering innovative teaching, community outreach and transformative student experience.


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