Know Your Neighbors: Tyeshiea Johnson of “Paper heART”

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Tye Johnson (far right) with a few of her students.

In the midst of a world that has seen a lot of negativity recently, it can be easy to lose some faith in humanity. If you have turned on ESPN in the past two years, you might have seen pro athletes convicted of domestic violence, child abuse and murder. Every news channel has extensively covered stories such as the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, or the panic surrounding Ebola. There seems to be no shortage of despair week after week, and it can get demoralizing. So, how can we make the world a better place? Oak Park’s Tye Johnson has a few ideas.

Johnson has been a teacher in the Oak Park school district for over ten years, and she believes in the power of people. In November 2014, she founded “paper heART,” a social justice and arts program that examines ways to improve the world. Johnson regularly asks her students, “What are you passionate about when it comes to social issues?” And “What can we do about it to help?” You’d be surprised to hear some of the answers that fifth to ninth graders can give.

Recently her students addressed the issue of human trafficking. In their research, they found that there were 16,000 people in the Chicagoland area that were victimized in 2014. These numbers made the kids think about how many people need help in this world, a characteristic Johnson instills in her students with every lesson. The class decided to do a fundraiser in which they successfully raised money and awareness for human trafficking. Seeing the kids do something positive is what motivates the Oak Park humanitarian. Her main passion in life is to empower people (no matter how young or old) to be the best possible version of themselves.

“I believe in the power of one person, that one person can truly make a difference,” says Johnson. “That style of thinking started the Civil Rights Movement and it has even started religions. I believe it is my duty to get people to recognize their capabilities so they can be agents of change.” We can continue to ask, “Why is the world like this?” Or we can think about what we have done to help.

Paper heART is a program that Johnson started because she saw a need for kids to care about something other than themselves. By focusing their attention on social issues, her students have something real to care about, according to Johnson.

Art from the Paper Doll & Action Figures exhibit
Art from the Paper Doll & Action Figures exhibit

“I’m an artist and I believe in helping people find their voices,” she said. The exhibit Paper Doll & Action Figures is a perfect example of this mentality. “We are not paper dolls nor action figures. We have vulnerabilities and limitations as humans and must be in touch with that to understand the human experience,” says Johnson. The students expressed their art on paper by drawing dolls or action figures that have personality traits they see within themselves.

There are few things more frustrating to Johnson than when she meets a person in their adulthood that appears to be living a more mediocre life because their creativity is not being nurtured. Adults have responsibilities, leaving only so much time in the day for art. But there is something honest about tapping into one’s imagination the same way a child does. This line of thinking can help a person see the world for what it is, and that is the first step towards making a difference.

“Recognize your light and don’t be afraid to shine it for other people,” says Johnson. “I want to inspire the people in the world to be agents of positive change.”

There will be three art camps taking place over the summer where kids will learn about different social issues and address them through art. The purpose of the camp is to teach children empathy and how to understand themselves. “We want kids to be able to be expressive, and teaching these values at a younger age will help them retain that mindset for the rest of their lives,” says Johnson.

The schedule for paper heART: A Social Justice & Arts Camp is as follows:

Session 1 (Weeks 1-2): Monday, June 15 – Friday, June 26.
Session 2 (Weeks 3-4): Monday, June 29 – Friday, July 10.
Session 3 (Weeks 5-6): Monday, July 13 – Friday, July 24.

For more information on the camp, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/paper-heart-a-social-justice-arts-camp-tickets-16158146451. You can also learn more about Johnson by visiting her website at http://www.tyejohnsonartistry.org/.

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