Art and Activism

Motivating Students to Take a Stand

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IN 2008 THE EQUIPOISE AT SUSQUEHANNA UNIVERSITY was threatened by racial tension that included the hurling of rocks and epithets. Professor of Sociology Simona Hill, an African American, chose to respond with a lesson learned from her mother, who taught leathercraft in women’s prisons in the 1940s and ’50s. “She understood,” says Hill, “that art gives a voice to people disconnected from society.”

Using the crocheting skills learned from her mother, she began creating a legacy quilt, an object that is often a linchpin in African American families. This quiet, repetitive task became a meditation, reminding her of the rosary beads of her Catholic girlhood, or the prayer beads of monks. “It gave me a focus that took me out of my individual plight,” she says. It also made her think of Rosa Parks, who was not simply a defiant woman on a bus, but a seamstress by trade.

Hill worked on the quilt in classrooms, restaurants and waiting rooms. People made favorable comments, and eventually Hill was moved to create laptop legacy quilts for some graduating seniors and others who admired the project. To date she has given out 18 quilts.

“It pleases me to think that these could end up anywhere, that my message of unity is reaching people outside of the SU campus.” Indeed, one woman took her quilt to Africa for her stint with the Peace Corps.

Hill and her colleague Dave Ramsaran, associate professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, wrote Hip Hop and Inequality: Searching for the Real Slim Shady (published by Cambria Press in 2009). In Philadelphia, she has worked with graffiti artists, helping them to channel the negative energy of the streets into the positive actions of painting murals in proper venues. She is an active and vocal member of Susquehanna’s Theresa Palmer Society and the university’s Center for Diversity and Social Justice. But her legacy quilts stand out as symbols for the seamless joining of races, faiths and viewpoints in a community of artists, teachers and students committed to improving the world.

Larry Gaffney is a contributing writer from Williamsport, Pa.

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