Maureen Cummins Project Reflections

1. In what ways can engaging with art inspire conversations, change perspectives, or increase empathy?

I believe that art is the only way, short of actually engaging with another creature or being or element of nature, that our hearts can open.

2. How might sharing personal experiences through the process of making art about migration, displacement or refuge increase our senses of belonging?

One of the things that separates humans from animals is that we cry. When a poignant or vulnerable story is presented to us, we get choked up. We are hard-wired evolutionarily to do this. So stories like this have the power to cut though all the other fake and dehumanizing stereotypes and assumptions and misinformation. When we share a personal story, especially a scary or taboo one, it’s an incredible step, because we are sharing our true selves with strangers. That vulnerability creates a bond of trust, even between strangers, and gives everyone permission to be themselves. The veil of fear drops.

3. How might historic stories of displacement impact understandings of our current moment?

For me, studying historic stories of displacement (most recently in Swarthmore’s Peace and Friends archives) has allowed me to notice patterns of human behavior, especially ones that occur during times of crisis. One phenomenon that repeats itself during such times is an upending of reality: the more powerful party sees itself as put upon, wronged, endangered, while the more vulnerable party is represented as dangerous and threatening. There are other patterns that repeat themselves as well—the use of dehumanizing images and descriptions, misinformation and “alternative facts,” the suppression of the press, and methods of “divide and conquer.” It doesn’t much matter whether it’s The Klan in 1920, Executive Order 9066 in 1942, or what we are seeing now. The patterns and methods are the same. Seeing them clearly allows us to name them and strip them of their power.

4. How do you imagine this project might change you?

This project has made me think a great deal about my own value system, especially around issues of power and domination. I gave a lot of thought to a quote of Gandhi’s that I read about thirty years ago, “The only true friendship is among equals.” I didn’t understand that quote at the time, I thought it meant that not all people were equal. What I believe he was saying was that systems of inequality and oppression make friendship impossible. Thinking about this quote while working on the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project has made me fiercer than ever in my determination to fight for my values and the kind of world that I want to live in.