A man is free after over 45 years. See how artists helped make a difference.

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.

Most Shared

On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

Culture
via Cadbury

Cadbury has removed the words from its Dairy Milk chocolate bars in the U.K. to draw attention to a serious issue, senior loneliness.

On September 4, Cadbury released the limited-edition candy bars in supermarkets and for every one sold, the candy giant will donate 30p (37 cents) to Age UK, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the elderly.

Cadbury was prompted to help the organization after it was revealed that 225,000 elderly people in the UK often go an entire week without speaking to another person.

Keep Reading Show less
Well Being

Young people today are facing what seems to be greater exposure to complex issues like mental health, bullying, and youth violence. As a result, teachers are required to be well-versed in far more than school curriculum to ensure students are prepared to face the world inside and outside of the classroom. Acting as more than teachers, but also mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders, they must be equipped with practical and relevant resources to help their students navigate some of the more complicated social issues – though access to such tools isn't always guaranteed.

Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

WE Teachers
True
Walgreens
via KGW-TV / YouTube

One of the major differences between women and men is that women are often judged based on their looks rather than their character or abilities.

"Men as well as women tend to establish the worth of individual women primarily by the way their body looks, research shows. We do not do this when we evaluate men," Naomi Ellemers Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today.

Dr. Ellers believes that this tendency to judge a woman solely on her looks causes them to be seen as an object rather than a person.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture