Providing grants, programs, and services to the artists and audiences of Tompkins County for 30 years

The Best Curriculum: The Value of Collaboration

CAP's Creative Recovery Fund grant has a primary focus area of arts events that address racial justice.

The Village at Ithaca is one of 12 grantees, and received funds for "Seats at the Table."

Young people (ages 13+) used their creativity, passion, and research skills to reclaim 12 found/used chairs and through decoupage, paint, and other techniques, transforming the chairs into the testimonials and depictions of the Black agents of freedom who came before them. 

Finished pieces for this ongoing project, were displayed this past July at the Ithaca City School District Diversity Symposium.

Sarah Wolff, Program Educator, came up with the idea while she was walking down her road and noticed an old chair up for grabs in her neighbor’s front yard. Her experience as an educator mainly revolves around teaching poetry and writing, but she has actively been exploring new forms for metaphor beyond the written. Her idea was to transform waste (old chairs) into a symbol of empowerment detailing a complex history of oppression. The chairs serve as an accessible metaphor for reworking biased systems in the pursuit of providing, protecting, and nurturing all people or... seats at the table come to fruition.  

The group of teenagers, mostly young black men and women, worked out of Sarah’s garage and yard. It was reassuring for Sarah to see young men use their artistic expression to tell their shared history and communicate ongoing challenges their community faces. “I love seeing moments like that happen; It showed me the value of collaboration,” Sarah said, “A table came to exist...We had our table.”

The chairs serve as a reclamation of a history that has neglected to be included in much of the curriculum in today's education. Sarah mentioned this might be the best curriculum she has used as an educator, which goes to show just how involved and impactful the project was. This was “A chance for them to practice advocacy on a small scale,” she said.

Merging history with abstract expression, some of the chairs, such as the “Ida B. Wells Throne of Truth and Justice,” were celebratory of Black agents of freedom. Others, such as the “Maternal Mortality Chair,” confronted past and current challenges the system creates; The CDC published a statistic which found black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women. The reality is there are racial disparities in access to and quality of healthcare.

This project bears many questions: Can chairs representing truth and justice have their place at the “table”—current social and political structures—or are these chairs meant to provide a seat for the community they represent at a table that is coming to exist irrespective of the “table” that for so long they have not been welcome to.

School administrators and educators who had the opportunity to view the chairs at the symposium were impressed by the students’ craftsmanship, collaboration, and scholarship. The assistant principal of Ithaca high school was in tears after the chairs were presented. 

Though they have made great progress, transforming twelve chairs, the project is not over. “It is not a done deal,” Sarah says. “It’s still evolving.” Ideas for the chairs continue to emerge and there is the possibility of future exhibitions.

For more grantee features, visit our grantee page.