[ Social Justice ]

Student art exhibition finds creative ways to explore social justice


sing various mediums, students from middle school to college created visual representations meant to inspire important conversations about heavy issues: Women’s rights. War. Racial inequality. Self-acceptance.

Camilla Quintero's scarf pink, purple, and white scarf with the words 'hardworking' and 'caring' stitched into the design with black thread
Photos: Dana Fournier
Suffern High School 10th grader Camilla Quintero won Best in Show 3D for My Scarf is Me.

The pieces were submitted for the inaugural juried student art exhibition held at NYSUT’s Tarrytown Regional Office. Students were asked to use NYSUT’s “Many Threads, One Fabric” theme to create original works of art that explore and embrace the histories, cultures and contributions of the many diverse peoples that comprise our world.

“It is fantastic to see the excitement from students who are exploring social justice issues, celebrating diversity and learning to express their feelings and beliefs through art,” said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham. His office provided funding for the event as part of the union’s social justice initiative.

A panel of judges, including Abraham, NYSUT graphic designer Dana Fournier and retired art educator Cynthia Appold, RC19, reviewed the pieces and awarded prizes based on how closely students were able to connect to the theme.

Lottia Barnes, an 11th grader at Suffern Central School District, won second place for her acrylic painting Slipping Through My Fingers, a self-portrait depicting Barnes in the bathroom as her mother styles her hair. The pair are reflected in the mirror as their younger selves during what Barnes describes as a more trying time for both.

“When I was younger, my mom used to do my hair a lot and sometimes, I didn’t like the way she did it and I used to get really frustrated with her,” Barnes explained. “But the older I got, the more I understood she didn’t quite understand how to do my hair either and I wanted to learn, too. So, the more she tried, the more I tried and together, we were able to figure it out. I feel like that’s a big part of who I am because now I really love my curls and I didn’t when I was younger, especially because I went to a predominantly white elementary school where nobody really looked like me. I credit my mom with encouraging me and for learning to embrace my hair with me.”

J. Philippe Abraham and Lottia Barnes standing next to each other while Lottia Barnes holds an award
J. Philippe Abraham and Lottia Barnes, an 11th grader at Suffern Central School District. Barnes won second place in the 2024 TRO Art Exhibit for her acrylic painting Slipping Through My Fingers, right.
J. Philippe Abraham and Lottia Barnes, an 11th grader at Suffern Central School District. Barnes won second place in the 2024 TRO Art Exhibit for her acrylic painting Slipping Through My Fingers, below.
Lottia Barnes' acrylic painting depicting a mother styling her daughter's hair
Award-winning students received gift cards for art supplies, and all participating students were given journals and colored pencils.

NYSUT’s Tarrytown Regional Staff Director Joan Deem first had the idea for the event and organized it from start to finish. Along with students, Deem also recognized art educators for the important role they play in helping students make connections to the world around them through art.

“Art educators teach students to think,” said Deem, a former high school art teacher on Long Island for more than 30 years. “They teach them critical thinking skills every time they put pen or pencil to paper or put their hands in clay. They teach them how to express themselves, how to form opinions, how to defend those opinions, and how to make connections. And that is what creates great citizens in our world.”

NYSUT is looking to expand the juried student art exhibition to other regions across the state.

“Our first show was a tremendous success and standing-room only,” Abraham said. “We are excited to continue the wildly popular event and recognize art students and educators in different communities.”

See more artwork at nysut.cc/tro_art. To learn more about NYSUT’s Social Justice initiatives, visit nysut.org/socialjustice.

eight different colored tubes of paint