Social Justice Sewing Academy {make a difference}

I came across the Social Justice Sewing Academy on Instagram and asked for an interview from Sara Trail. I knew it would be a perfect fit for my {make a difference} series! And stay around to the end… there are ways you can help (beyond monetary donations!)

Why did you start the Social Justice Sewing Academy?

My family comes from a line of quilters. During slavery, my great-great grandmother, Margaret Smart, was a quilter who used scraps from discarded clothing to make quilts for her family. At the time, women who could not sew quilts to keep their children warm risked their children dying in harsh winters, as most slaves’ quarters had no source of heat. Sewing was a matter of survival. I have a quilt that Margaret Smart made in the mid-1800s. My 86-year-old grandmother, Emma Cox, gave my mom this quilt from her grandmother and my mother passed it down to me. It is a priceless treasure to me and my family. My mother, Katrinka Trail and my aunt Emory both love to quilt. I began using my first sewing machine at four-years-old which horrified my grandmother. My mom told my grandmother that if I ran my fingers under the machine (which she had locked to a slow speed), she would take me to the emergency room and that my injuries would not be life threatening. But I really wanted to sew. My mom reminds me that I often cried until she let me sit in her lap and guide the fabric underneath the needle. I learned to sew straight lines on the sewing machine at a young age. I did not prick my fingers until I was 12 years old while trying to sew and talk on the cell phone at the same time. I hid this injury from my mom and never tried to sew and talk on the phone again.

Outside of my earliest mentors (mom and Aunt Emory), my biggest mentor is Mrs. Eleanor O’Donnell. I met Eleanor at a quilting class at the age of 11. She saw my passion for sewing and offered to teach me advanced quilting techniques in her home. My parents dropped me off at her home 4 or 5 evenings every week after school. Eleanor is an incredible quilter and responsible for my quilting talent and styles. From 6th grade until I graduated from high school, Eleanor was always there, behind the scenes helping me grow and develop in quilting. Her kindness and patience as a mentor is a gift I can never repay. Because of Eleanor, I was offered an opportunity to write, “Sew With Sara” and “Cool Stuff to Sew With Sara.” Mrs. Laverne Edwards also mentored me in fashion design. Laverne is a retired college professor of design and color theory. She is the most talented dressmaker I know. For countless days and hours, Laverne taught me tailoring, pattern design and color theory. When we watched “Project Runway” together, I would sketch the design, and then we would make the garment later that afternoon. Teaching me how to visually see a garment, sketch it and create a 3D reality is invaluable. It is because of her years of mentoring, I was able to land a contract with Simplicity Patterns and design a pattern line, “Designed with Love By Sara.” Laverne’s color theory instruction helped me when I was offered the opportunity to design fabrics, “Biology 101 Fabrics by Fabriquilt” and “Folkheart Fabrics by Fabriquilt.”

I used to teach (along with my mom and Eleanor) an after-school, free sewing class at my church for teens who wanted to learn how to sew. After seeing my sewing projects and watching my peers express their interest in sewing and fashion design. My pastor, Henry Kelly, went to Walmart and bought a dozen sewing machines to use for the classes. I brought fabric from my home and Eleanor also donated her time and fabrics. We taught kids how to make purses, quilts, pajamas and pillows and even prom dresses for some of the high schoolers. The classes were fun and even at the age of 10, I knew that I had found my passion in teaching sewing classes!

I decided to start the SJSA when I realized others may want express themselves in the ways I had by combining sewing and social justice. Together, a tremendous amount of positive energy can be directed towards creating change through combining sewing and social justice efforts. I knew that sewing was a valuable skill young people should have the opportunity to learn. I received the Stronach Prize at UC Berkeley, which provided the resources needed to purchase machines, fabrics and materials needed to start a sewing class. The Social Justice Sewing Academy in Berkeley this summer provided me with the opportunity to expand standard classroom instruction to include sewing instruction. It was a powerful experience. The feedback from the high school students really let me know that the SJSA is a positive experience for students. They leave the class knowing how to sew and how to process their societal concerns into beautiful artwork that will be admired by many.

What has been the response to your project?

The students have absolutely loved it. The academy creates a new way for students to become activists, to be leaders, to speak on what’s important to them but giving them the tools to find their own voice. The academy gives students a forum to express themselves and a tool to find their voice. This is a new way for students to become activists.
Over the past few decades, the education market has placed a heavy emphasis on private education over public schooling. In many instances, there are vast disparities that exist between public and private schools; however, the most crucial issue is the access to resources. Students at private schools, on average, receive more hands-on feedback from teachers, better technology, more counseling, and in many cases smaller class sizes. That does not go to say that private schools are necessarily better than public schools, but just that private school students usually have more of an advantage than public school students. When we look at standardized testing for example, a student at a private school might have an ACT prep course that is part of the school curriculum and receive personal tutoring and even study materials to take home. On the other hand, however, a student at a public school might simply receive a prep book that requires self-study, which he or she may not complete alone. This is an example that I have seen play out many times and could greatly alter which colleges, if any, were accessible to particular students.

SJSA places a veil between class and the students. We give all students an equal amount to resources such as the materials we read and the sewing tools. Everyone is treated equally. Moreover, SJSA focuses on unity in the cohort of students — developing long-lasting bonds and helping each other grow, where in many private and public school settings students are self-interested for improving GPA or test scores. Finishing an assignment early or scoring the highest grade does not impact anything; thus, there is no competition among the students — everything is based on collaboration and teamwork. No one is trying to be the best because each student has unique talents and skills. Lastly, we truly emphasize the importance of fun. In many instances, students go to school because their parents force them to, or because they know it’s important to the future. However, I want students to wake up every day and be excited about coming to SJSA, excited about learning something new and working with their peers. I want to make SJSA as fun as possible by constantly engaging with students and being interactive throughout the entire day, and especially during workshops.

I divided the typical day of SJSA into two parts. First, there is a workshop developing the student’s levels of critical consciousness. Workshops feature concepts such as colorism, intersectionality, feminist epistemology, and misogyny in hip hop. During these workshops, students will discuss readings from Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberly Crenshaw, Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and others. SJSA allows students to explore, discuss and express modes of knowing, lived experiences and creativity. Following the morning workshop, there will be in-depth sewing instruction tapping into their creativity by introducing sewing techniques, color theory, and artistic expression. During the sewing portion of SJSA, I teach the participants machine safety, how to properly cut fabric, how to assemble and piece blocks together along with pattern design. It is my goal that students leave the academy very socially conscious and aware of a plethora of systemic injustices and ready to take action as well as a strong foundation in sewing and textile art expression.

In addition to creating a safe space for students to share their ideas and experiences, SJSA does have homework assignments. Ranging from poetry, to personal statements for college, research papers and self- authored bios SJSA has quite a bit of homework and classwork component. However, in SJSA we don’t have any form of grading. I analyze and give feedback on the content of the work they turn in to explore their growth as a writer within the timeline of the academy. I encourage student analysis of social justice issues but always allow complete agency of the writer- I strive to create a writer identity in the students and would never reproduce the standardized method of “grading” by only selecting the ones who produce A quality work to be featured on the SJSA bulletins or website. I feel that lack of recognition discourages youth from writing, or many times silence their voice all together. One important aspect in SJSA is that final written work of all students are always published in a culminating book and on the website.

Have you had an unexpected lesson from your work?

During the days of slavery, quilts were not only used to provide extra warmth on cold nights, but they were also forms of resistance. In Africa, quilting was largely left to men, however, in North America, quilting was done almost exclusively by women. These women utilized this medium to tell the stories of their families and of the struggles they were subjected to. Storytelling has long been central to African culture and in creating quilts, African-American women continued to uphold its value by providing a tangible representation of their stories to be passed down through generations. Quilting also served as an opportunity for African-American women to come together, to socialize, and to collaborate with one another on their shared experiences. With SJSA, we attempt to bring quilts back to their original purpose, their roots. By mixing historical African textile traditions with the influence of the current sociopolitical climate, quilting becomes an act against oppression. It is a way for our participants, which tend to be those belonging to a minority or marginalized group, to share their untold stories. The resulting quilt of their combined fabric blocks will be reflective of their conversations, of their ability to recognize injustice and their willingness to collectively combat it. In stitching their blocks together, we illustrate the connection that participants have to one another, both by their critique of the society in which they live, as well as by the community they created when presented with a safe space in which their voice could be heard.

I think the biggest unexpected lesson I’ve seen: are witnessing the differences in young people’s experiences geographically. For instance, having a workshop in a private school and talking about social justice- the students concerns range from saving the turtles, to climate change, and stopping animal abuse/cruelty – however when I did a lot of workshops I Oakland or Chicago- kids were concerned with police brutality and gun control (sharing many experiences of their loved ones being killed randomly). I think the biggest lesson is seeing how some groups of youth are very far removed from social issues and some are directly impacted. I’ve seen kids make a block on cocaine or drug addiction, and when I asked what made you care about this issue? Them sharing, “my mom is an addict. I haven’t seen her in years and I live with my grandparents” really has been eye-opening. Social Justice issues are a lived reality for some, while a far more ‘removed’ concept / theory/ issue for others.

Tell me about a memorable teaching experience.

A memorable teaching experience was the initial resistance that the young men in SJSA demonstrated. They went through the first week engaged in the academic, homework, curriculum aspect of the program but were a bit hesitant to get involved in the sewing portion. I heard a few comments such as “sewing is for girls” “I’m not gay- I don’t wanna sew” etc, but once they started to view sewing and creating political art as a mode to share their voice and make textile art- those same guys were spending their free time and lunch periods in the studio working on their social justice art quilts. I think the most memorable teaching moment was witnessing their shift and watch their love for sewing develop.

While sewing has become a gendered activity that is often thought of as outdated or exclusively female, the hope is that in introducing both men and women to the practice of sewing, they will see just how powerful it is to breath art into a simple piece of fabric. Sewing can be a political expression of freedom or an avenue to economic independence. As young people, it is important they find their voice and more importantly, a platform of expression. In establishing SJSA, I hope to dismantle this discourse giving these young men and women an opportunity to grow as students, artists and activists.

How can we support you if we don’t live in the Bay Area?

We are always looking for volunteers to embroider blocks! In this process, I will ship you 2-3 12×12 inch squares that students have made in the workshops, and if they could just be embroidered and mailed back to me (pre-paid postage) it really helps put the quilts together. The community aspect is key. Having kids make blocks, then being embroidered by people who just feel like they want to donate their time, then get back to me and is pieced together- it goes through many hands, takes a lot of effort to make a community quilt.

Additionally, fabric/ tools/ craft materials are always appreciated donations. That’s how the workshops and free summer program is made possible- through in-kind donations.

Also reach out! We would love to collaborate. If you have a group of youth and want a week long program? Or even a one day workshop, or any mix of anything in between, I would love to make it happen with you.

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  1. I am a retired seamstess and a member of the Embroiderers Guild of America. I would be happy to embroider some blocks for these youth. You may be able to get much more help with this by contacting local members of EGA (ega.usa.org).

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