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Meeting a #GWH: Bree Newsome

Global Women Hero, Bree Newsome with ARTE students in Harlem

By: Carina D'Urso

In April 2018, the students of Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry painted ARTE’s Global Women Heroes mural in the bitter cold, but they were unwavered by weather. They were creating something powerful. When ARTE unveiled the mural in the spring of 2019, it became a symbol of solidarity, connecting the young people who painted it with the incarcerated women who designed it. The mural includes the words of Malala, who said, “I raise up my voice- not so I can shout, but so those without a voice can be heard.” It applauds those who amplify the voices of those who often made invisible and unheard. In commemorating the six global activists, Malala Yousafzai, Leena Kejriwal, Leymah Gbowee, Dolores Huerta, Michelle Obama, and Bree Newsome, the youth and incarcerated women who created the mural became activists themselves.

On Tuesday, April 16th, 2019, the ARTE team had the honor of meeting artist and activist Bree Newsome, one of the women depicted in the mural. Three of the students from the mural project who worked tirelessly for its creation, engaged in conversation with Newsome, learning about her resilient advocacy and artistic work. These students, Chris Robles, Linda Martinez, and Celeste Perez, led the conversation and personally connected with Newsome.

In 2015, Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house in order to protest the legacy of racism and injustice that the flag symbolized. In speaking with her, the ARTE team experienced her journey and the powerful values that compose her commitment to activism. The students had spent hours painting her, and in meeting her, they could further understand and reflect on her experience.

For Bree Newsome, scaling the Confederate flag pole was personal. Her family was enslaved in South Carolina. Her roots are embedded within the American South: she was born in North Carolina, and she grew up in Maryland. Her ancestors were enslaved in South Carolina. Her mother was a teacher whose work revolved around equality education. She was surrounded by diversity, yet she felt an intense awareness of the systematic injustice that existed within her home, both historically and currently. Through Newsome’s reflections on her personal history, the students were able to climb into her experience, understanding the roots of her advocacy work.

In listening to her story, we were able to delve into the creation of the project for which she is best known: her scaling of the Confederate flag pole. Her decision to remove the Confederate flag was personal. She chose to remove the flag because she was continually appalled by North Carolina’s legislative decisions. North Carolina was impacting voting rights by changing legislature that allowed people to vote using their student ID cards. In addition to this, the state added 50 pages to the legislature specifically targeting black voters. She watched as the human rights of those surrounding her dissipated, and she felt an urgent need to do something. For Newsome, liberation was personal, launching her to protest injustice.

In removing the Confederate flag, Newsome dismantled injustice and created concrete change. Her action of activism required an abundance of deliberation. She practiced scaling a lamppost for a day and a half in order to prepare for the action. James Tyson was alongside her as she scaled the flagpole, and they were arrested together. Bree Newsome artfully crafted each component of her mission, creating an image of a refusal to accept injustice. Her upward climb symbolizes the struggle in dismantling injustice. Tyson, a white man, posed below her as a construction worker. His presence identifies the notion that the fight against injustice needs to involve all of us. Her act of protest was not only such: it was also an act of performance art. She created a visual metaphor for struggle, one that would inspire individuals to continue the fight.

Bree Newsome displays a humility that truly identifies her as Global Woman Hero. In speaking to the students of ARTE, she encouraged them that anyone can be an activist. Even before her momentous removal of the Confederate, Newsome was continually working to create change at a local level. Presently, she works to utilize her craft as a filmmaker as a lens to document injustice everywhere. Newsome works to build a bridge between issues of human rights, calling for togetherness among advocates. She is an upstander for justice: she is unafraid to perform relentless acts of advocacy, while encouraging individuals to work for one another.

ARTE remains grateful not only for the time that Bree Newsome spent with our team and in particular our student artists, but would like to also honor her contribution to our scholarship fund that will continue to support ARTE program graduates in the future.

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