Quilting for Justice: Interview with Sara Trail

This interview was originally published in Issue 36 and we’re delighted to make it publicly available here. 

Sara Trail is the founder of Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA), which she started in the Bay Area in 2017. This is how she describes their work: “Social Justice Sewing Academy is a youth education programme that bridges artistic expression with activism to advocate for social justice. Through a series of hands-on workshops, SJSA empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation, community cohesion, and to become agents of social change.” I had the honour of interviewing Sara on the phone on November 4th, as we awaited the results of another historical election. While we were unsure of what the results might be at the time, I was filled with hope knowing that Sara’s work with SJSA will continue to transform and help to create a world that uplifts young people – their experiences, their voices, and their dreams.

Content warning: Discussion of topics such as state and community violence, as well as other social justice topics that impact young people today.

Interview by Emi Ito
Images courtesy Social Justice Sewing Academy

When I first came across your work, I was deeply moved by the powerful messages that were being communicated through the quilts. The poignant imagery and the connection to Cleve Jones’ AIDS Memorial Quilt really struck me; however, unlike the AIDS Quilt, your vision is more expansive and includes a range of social justice issues that are in the hearts and on the minds of young people. When you conceived of Social Justice Sewing Academy, why did you focus on young people and why did you choose quilts as the medium for creative expression?

I’ve been sewing since I was four so quilting was just the medium I was comfortable in and felt confident in teaching. There is also a lack of resurgence in sewing among young people in the community. When I talk to my peers, they’ll say that their grandma sews, but they don’t know how. So why don’t young people know? Well, access, resources, finances. Sewing is a luxury. It costs more to make a quilt than to buy one. Bringing sewing back is important culturally, particularly as an African American. From Gee’s Bend to Underground Railroad Quilts, whether you believe in them or not, sewing has always been a form of resistance for the Black community.

Why young people? I go back to this quote by Arundhati Roy: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And young people are definitely in those latter two categories. They are being deliberately silenced by adults. Given our current climate, adults aren’t always right. Kids’ voices and opinions aren’t heard while adults are making choices that directly impact young people. As young people become more and more engaged through their lived experiences, school environments, and neighbourhoods, we’re seeing more socially-conscious young people. Young people are refusing to be quiet, saying, “Let’s all be at the table, because adult decisions impact us – let’s all have our voices heard.”

We also have the Remembrance Project, which is inspired by the AIDS Quilt. It’s a quilt block community art project that memorialises those who have been unjustly murdered by community violence, race-based violence, law enforcement, and gender or sexuality-based violence. These ‘artivism’ blocks honour the lives of the individuals and remind the world that their lives mattered.

Cornelius Fredericks by Diane Bush @dianebushsarts

From your own quilt of Trayvon Martin that sparked Social Justice Sewing Academy to many of the quilt blocks that other young people have created, the topics are deeply personal, nuanced, and intense. What are the kinds of conversations that happen around the table when the young people are making the quilt blocks?

Conversations range from tears, to anger, to frustration, to being pissed off. We’ve had conversations with kids about being undocumented, we’ve had conversations about sexual assault, even conversations about self harm and depression. We also talk about frustrations around their school’s dress code. From superficial to extremely deep, the range has been absolutely everything.

We’ve also done workshops that were very profound. We’ve done workshops in juvenile halls and with youth in the foster care system living in group homes. And during these workshops youth will not only discuss critiques they have of the system, but also possible solutions, and possible next steps. Young people are really innovative and filled with optimism.

Kayla Moore by Denise Oyama Miller @deniseoyamamiller

Once the quilt blocks are finished by embroidery and sewing volunteers and then hung on display in schools, community spaces, and museums, what do you hope people will take from them and talk about in their circles of influence? 

I really hope that it moves people first to empathy, caring, and being concerned with the issue. And then, second, to action. I hope the art stirs the heart but, most importantly, moves them to take action.

You graduated from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, so how does your background as an educator inform your work with Social Justice Sewing Academy?

I identify as an abolitionist teacher, which is a teaching style rooted in critical thinking and radical resistance focused on educational freedom. People often think school is the end-all goal when instead school should be viewed as the beginning of a journey that will shape who they are and who they want to become. Bettina Love once said, “Education can’t save us. We have to save education” and I feel this resonates with me and a lot of the youth we’ve done workshops with.

A Social Justice Sewing Academy quiltmaking workshop. 

Just like a quilt brings pieces of cloth together in unexpected ways, you’re bringing communities together in unexpected ways as well. Could you share a bit about the collaborative process?

SJSA is intentionally bringing about intergenerational collaboration between a lot of educated and affluent white women and kids from marginalised backgrounds; the difference is we’re telling the privileged to be quiet and listen and we’re giving the microphone to the kids. So to have that audience listening is an interesting dynamic. We have everyone from MD doctors to engineers spending 20 to 30 hours embroidering a young person’s quilt block in this anonymous volunteer act.

SJSA provides a brave space for kids to express themselves through the quilt block and their artist’s statement, which might include a critique of society, a hope, or encouragement, and then the quilt block and statement go to the next person, the embroidery volunteer. And that volunteer engages in their own learning as they spend time reflecting on that child’s piece and their statement. It takes a young person about three to four hours to create the quilt block and the volunteer 10, maybe even 20 hours to embroider it. That’s a lot of time for the volunteer to sit with the young person’s piece and it can often be a talking point and entry point into conversations with their own families and friends about the issue the young person has expressed on their quilt block.

Rekia Boyd by Nika Feldman @nikabilt

How can young people get involved who may not be able to attend a workshop in person, especially during this time of COVID-19? And how can people support your work?

For young people, we are doing virtual workshops which they can access through our Instagram account, @sjsacademy. We also have a business incubator for young people that is sponsored by Janome and Spoon Flower, where youth get funding to support their projects and receive mentoring over Zoom as they develop their business plan. For adults who want to get involved and volunteer, we have the Remembrance Project, which I mentioned before. We have an endless list of names and not enough volunteers. It’s a no-sew project, so all skill levels and all crafters are welcome to participate. Once a volunteer signs up to participate, they are sent a name of someone who was unjustly murdered. The volunteer must do the research to find out more about that person, highlighting their humanity and story through the unquilted memorial block. It’s a heart project, not an art project.

We also have the Quilts of Remembrance, which is a project where volunteers sign up to make full quilts for the families who have been left behind. These quilts are often made out of their family member’s old clothing and textiles, so a volunteer might be cutting up an old graduation gown and including that in the quilt to send to the family. This particular volunteer opportunity is not for the faint-hearted, it can feel heavy to work with the victim’s clothing and incorporate them into the quilt. This is a project for those who can take on a challenge, and have the time, talent, resources, and kindness to dedicate that much time to a family.

Like a beloved quilt, Social Justice Sewing Academy is wrapping itself around young people and giving them vital opportunities to share their stories and thrive. These acts of resistance will continue to ripple out into the world, one stitch at a time.

Please visit sjsacademy.org to get involved in the Remembrance Project and to make a Quilt of Remembrance!

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