By Isabella altamirano
5 years ago, an organization came to my school, Lighthouse Charter High School in Oakland, called Vision Quilt – an art project that raises awareness about gun violence. I worked closely with the executive director, Cathy DeForest. She’s been working in East Oakland with two different coalitions for peace in the street, Violence Prevention Coalition and the Oakland Frontline Healers. I got a better understanding of what gun violence was and the deeper impact it has on communities. When gun violence increased as an issue all around, Cathy began to study and look deeper into the subject and efforts that go into building a non-profit organization to prevent gun violence through Vision Quilt. So far, Vision Quilt has worked with a number of schools across Oakland and as far away as organizations in Portland, Oregon and Chicago. Her organization has also implemented a curriculum so that more schools and communities can participate in her work to reduce gun violence. You can check out the Vision Quilt exhibit on International Blvd. in Oakland from 73rd to to 103rd streets.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length by Isabella Altamirano
Isabella Altamirano: What is the vision quilt?
Cathy DeForest: It’s a series of art pieces that people have done on 18 by 24 inch fabric, either horizontally or vertically and they share their visions on how to prevent gun violence in some cases. It’s cathartic for people because they’ve experienced it or they’ve heard the news. We include anybody’s artwork as long as it isn’t racist or vulgar in some way. And then we have a big virtual quilt that’s accessible everywhere. We made literally six foot panels out of vinyl and they’re now on International Boulevard– one point six miles of vision quote panels. This is the biggest, most permanent exhibit, they’ll be up for 5 to 7 years. We took the images of guns out because we didn’t want a little kid to look up and see guns. Several of these are from Lighthouse Summer from West Oakland Middle School. Some are from survivors. They’re really powerful.
IA: How many quilts have been made?
CD: Over 1,000 since 2000. We started in late 2015, and they’ve been made by survivors, community activists and by young people. Panels have been created by all kinds of people between the ages of 3 and 96.
IA: How did you get involved in the work that you do?
CD: When I was a high school English teacher I taught journalism for one year and I taught kids who couldn’t read very well even in high school and they always kind of had my heart. My PhD is in organizational development. I learned to work with organizations to help them grow and make systemic change. I had woken up from a dream, actually. I knew we needed to use the power of art to solve this problem. We need to win people’s hearts and minds through people’s visions. So that’s how the Vision Quilt started. I just couldn’t stand for one more kid to be killed, just doesn’t make sense to me. This is a solvable problem and we just need the will power and the courage to solve it.
IA: How does this project help promote peace and prevent gun violence?
CD: I think it’s healing for people to do it. I think people feel powerless.
One of the Lighthouse students did his panel, he wrote – “who killed our hope”, and that really got to me. He also painted a flower which was splattered with red paint like blood. I think the Vision Quilt panel and the whole expedition is a way to empower young people. The whole intention of the project is to empower people to have their voices heard. Students or people of color don’t often get to be heard or seen, and this is a way to increase awareness and that’s why we did it on fabric, not on paper, so that it would last. And it wakes people up, you know? We also ask the artists to contribute artist’s statements and then sometimes the story behind the panel is as significant as the panel itself.
IA: What does it mean to you?
CD: I was a teacher, then I was a consultant with systemic change information and then I was an artist and then I had kids late in life. I feel like it’s a way to bring all of those skills and experiences to the world. I feel like I’m facilitating something that’s important. And you know, gun violence has only gotten worse, right? During the pandemic, it got really bad. Portland, Oregon hardly had any gun violence and now it has a lot. It’s really so sad.
IA: What do you hope community members leave with after working with your organization working with Vision Quilt?
CD: We hope to empower communities, to have them want to create solutions to gun violence through the power of art and inclusive dialogue. We’re also hoping that after they see an exhibition or make a panel that they’ll go back to their neighborhood or their community and actually bring people together to say, “what can we do on this local level to make changes?” There are survivors who have helped other survivors. Some people are becoming activists. Some people are becoming journalists. I hope this project helps stir people up and allow them to express their gifts.