On This Ship, You’ll Fly

What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour

Gwendolyn Brooks

Today, I want to honor the work of The Ship of Tolerance, an international art project for children created by artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. First launched in Egypt in 2005, The Ship of Tolerance has been re-created in various locations around the world including Venice, Havana, Moscow, New York and Rome.  The 60-foot long, hand-crafted wooden ship is dedicated to educating and inspiring young people through the universal language of art. According to the Thames Festival Trust, where the ship is showing through September 2019, “Its unique potency emerges via a curated workshop program with primary schools, refugee groups and cultural organizations in which children paint silk panels to make sails … based on their discussion of diversity and the agency ideas gain through art.”

But in order to partake of growth projects such as The Ship of Tolerance, let’s not forget that children first require a fundamental recognition of their inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Today, as well as celebrating the beautiful hope of our children, I also need to talk about how children suffer, and how much they need our protection and kindness. All children, all the time. Their Wellness = Our Future. It’s such a simple equation; one we so often get wrong.

Here at Engaging the Senses Foundation, our team and all the poets/artists/activists with whom we work are sickened and sorrowed — but not surprised — by the new report from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, which says that children who are separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border suffer severe and ongoing trauma. The report, based on interviews with approximately 100 mental health clinicians who’ve had regular interactions with the children, is the first substantial accounting by a government agency of how family separation under the current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has affected children’s mental health.

This is not a political issue. This is a right to be fully human issue. This is not a debatable concept; the suffering of these children is fact. Because we partner actively and passionately with individuals (and organizations) of Black, Indigenous, and Latino descent — because as a literary arts organization we work with and on behalf of children from incredibly challenged backgrounds — the team at ETSF also know that this is not a new problem, but an age-old fissure in the project of human civilization. It has almost never not occurred, the decimation of the Other through the harming of a culture’s most vulnerable members.

To focus on just the US, the brutal othering of certain groups by dominant ones is something we’ve only begun to admit on a larger scale. We are finally acknowledging that the slavery of Black peoples and the tearing apart of their families is what this country is built on. We can no longer deny the unbearable destruction, beginning in the late 19th century, of Indigenous families whose children were stolen from their parents and forced into boarding schools specifically intended to destroy Native Indian tribal identity.

This is all a horrible stain on our past, and continues to warp and harm our current collective culture in terrible ways. It’s something we have to acknowledge fully, together, in order to heal and become better. The past is never just the past. But it has passed, and can’t actually be changed by those of us living in the present. Some level of acceptance is, in fact, necessary in order to move forward.

What we can’t accept for a moment is to be implicated in present acts just like the ones from the past that we now call abhorrent. What’s unthinkable is that we are replicating barbarity of this sort in a modern civilization that professes to embrace true enlightenment and full equality.

In our capacity as a literary arts organization, ETSF is blessed to be able to have a forum in which we can say what it is we see. When it comes to the suffering of children, what we see is that, without basic human rights — the right to be protected, fed, sheltered, nurtured, the right of families to stay together in order to ensure just that* — nothing else is possible for a child. But one step beyond that, in the realm of human growth, we also see and know that art heals and inspires children to live fully, creatively, expressively, and fearlessly, and to someday become healthy and engaged adults: the adults our world so desperately needs.

Through speaking aloud, through our curricula for children, and our support of organizations that aid incarcerated migrant children and families as well as arts-based partners and organizations that work with children, we are trying, with so many other artists and activists, to build a better world. Please join us, in whatever capacity you have.

*From The United Nations Human Rights Commissions  Convention on the Rights of the Child

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

“States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.”