On Feb. 19, 2016, Albert Woodfox turned 69 years old. On that same day, he walked out of a Louisiana prison a free man after serving over 45 years — 43 of them in solitary confinement, which is longer than anyone else in U.S. history.

It was, as he told DemocracyNow!, "quite the birthday gift."


All images via Canvases of Courage/Vimeo.

Woodfox's case had long been the object of passionate protest and advocacy from civil and human rights groups around the world who believed that the 23 hours a day he spent in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over half of his life was not only inhumane but particularly unfathomable for a man whose charges were believed to be based on false evidence and politically motivated. (To learn more about his case, do some research on The Angola Three, the name given to him and two others placed in solitary confinement for the same event in 1972.)

But it wasn't just hardcore human rights activists and civil rights historians who knew Woodfox's name.

When news of the 69-year-old's release spread, thousands across the country rejoiced.



How and why did so many people know about a man incarcerated over 45 years ago?

There are probably many reasons. But an undeniable factor in the spread of one man's unjust treatment was the fact that more than once, the story of Woodfox's case, imprisonment, and resilience has been told through arguably the most universal language known to man: art.

Last December, a group of 12 visual artists gathered in New Orleans to create original works representing ongoing cases of human rights violations around the world.

The artists who participated, convened by Art for Amnesty's creative director Marvin Bing, are those who see their purpose as not only to tell stories that reflect the rich diversity of cultures and experiences that they know as artists of color. They also believe it is their responsibility to tell stories that tangibly make people's lives — and the world — better.

Woodfox's case was one of those stories.

Philadelphia artist Jesse Krimes, who himself spent a year in solitary confinement in federal prison, built a simulated cell for the installation for people to experience the size of such inhumane imprisonment. Artsit Brandan "B-Mike" Odums did just that, standing in it to "physically step inside that reality, that physical space" and bring another level of empathy to the mural tribute to Woodfox that he would be painting.

A New Orleans native, Odums ascribes to the idea that art's purpose is to speak truth.

" I can't pretend to speak my truth without trying to embody a sensitivity to the sufferings of everyday people. ... It's important that we keep saying these people's names, that we keep telling their stories so that we can't escape from the reality of what is happening. "

Woodfox's story was just the tip of the iceberg for other cases creatively rendered that day.

Artist Katie Yamasaki's work told the story of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, an El Salvadoran woman sentenced to 30 years in prison for "aggravated homicide" after suffering a still-birth at work.

Teodora, mother of an 11-year-old boy, was expecting a new baby when she started experiencing increasingly severe pain. She called emergency services, but before they arrived, she went unconscious and ultimately gave birth.

When she woke up, she was bleeding profusely and her newborn baby was dead. When police arrived, they took her to the hospital where she could get the urgent treatment she needed. But not before handcuffing and arresting her on suspicion of murder.

In El Salvador, women who miscarry or suffer a still-birth during pregnancy are routinely suspected of having had an abortion. Abortion under any circumstance is a crime, even in cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life is at risk.

Making the artwork even more meaningful, Yamasaki was an expectant mother herself.

Ordinarily she has a simple reason for her work as a painter: "The purpose of the art is to tell a story. And the purpose of telling a story is to tell a story that might not have been told before or tell a story that needs to be told."

But, she said, telling Teodora's story during her own pregnancy was especially emotional and poignant.

Artist Douglas Miles had a similarly personal reason for his piece on the plight of an imprisoned cartoonist.

As a Native American, Miles believes his role is very clearly "to push back against institutional racism." His work highlighted the Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar, who was imprisoned after posting tweets condemning the jailing of an opposition leader in his country.

Miles said he appreciates the powerful role that social media plays in expanding audience's access to their work which otherwise would not be seen galleries and museums. With that, and the ongoing oppression of Inidigenous peoples, in mind, he visually represented Zunar's story.


Artist Jessica "J-Hand" Strand chose to create a piece exploring the life of Saman Naseem, a 17-year-old juvenile offender who was tortured and still awaits a fair trial.

Previous activism already resulted in Saman's death sentence being stopped. But now, still imprisoned at 21 years old, he has yet to be retried.

Strand's passion for the case connects directly to her roots in New Orleans, a city known for its high levels of incarceration.

Her final work was a visually stunning depiction of not just Saman but of the impact of vision through the lens of torture and imprisonment.

Those are just four of the 12 stories immortalized that day.

From Jerome Lagarrigue's piece highlighting the story of a vicious LGBTQ hate crime in Athens, Greece, to Hebru Brantly's visual reminder that "all truths aren’t considered free" to Bayunga Kialeuka's mural challenging the unjust police regime in the Congo — each brought with it its own astounding level of "I can't believe this is happening in the year 2015. And something must be done."

Fortunately, Amnesty International provided an opportunity to do a powerful something for the over 4,500 attendees who came to watch the artists and show their support at the free event.

The day's events were connected to Amnesty International's Write for Rights, a global letter-writing campaign encouraging people all over the world to write letters in protest of these and other open human rights cases.

When curating the show, Bing knew the art's ultimate power to inspire empathy and action must be met with immediate opportunities to harness the shock, outrage, and passion for justice into something tangible and impactful.

Over 15,000 letters were written that day.

The art's inclusion in that campaign wasn't simply a creative addition to the ongoing work for justice and human rights. It brought hope that our expression, our voices can indeed make a difference.

It was a hope that for Albert Woodfox was finally realized months later when the tireless efforts of activists, lawyers, letter-writers, and, yes, also artists finally paid off.

The artists in New Orleans and the cases that they selected were featured in a beautiful short film "Canvases of Courage," directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (Bush|Renz) and executive produced by Bing with the support of Amnesty International USA and Art for Amnesty. The film premiered in January 2016 during Golden Globes weekend and is now traveling the country. Take a look to see each of the beautiful murals in full and hear the artists also share their own story.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

Jimmy Fallon recently asked his “Tonight Show” audience on Twitter to share their own worst car experiences. Some of them make my brake fiasco look like cakewalk (or cakedrive, in this case). Either way, these responses might make us all feel a little less alone. Or at the very least, give us a chuckle.

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