An industrious group of students recently turned to needles and thread in a continuing effort to document the children lost to violence in our city. Launched in the 2016–17 school year, students have been hand-embroidering the name of each child lost onto a fabric square that will join others to make a larger quilt. These stitched names are significant, not only due to their loss to violence, but also their ages. They were too young to die.
The cloth and thread students use in this project are deliberate. Blue and white shirting (retrieved from Parker’s Garage Sale donations by parent Helen Wanderstock) serves as the surface for the names, which students stitch in red thread. These colors—white, blue and red—are the same as those on Chicago’s flag.
As science teacher Elizabeth Druger and students in her advisory work on this project, they talk about the children who were killed, what they were like, what they must have brought to their families and who they could have become had their lives not been cut short by the wrath of violence. As they reflect, advisory members embroider the names of the children, recognizing and honoring each child, the tragedy brought to each family and the impact on community.
In Druger’s eyes, this connection is a vital part of this project. “We use clothing to emphasize the very personal nature of each child our city has lost, which is often missing in media reports and soundbites. We keep asking, ‘How do we come back to this human piece?’ to remind ourselves we are in the midst of an ongoing tragedy. ‘How have we have become desensitized to losing children to violence?’” The red thread represents Chicago’s red stars, but also the blood of the children. Druger emphasized the injustice of the violence. “When you look at what’s happening in our city, we need to ask ourselves why, examine ways to call attention, respond and evoke change.”
Quilting is a vehicle of historic remembrance and community building in American culture. Druger shared, “When you think about quilting historically, it’s a documentation of the American experience by women. Early quilts served as maps for the Underground Railroad, depicting which way to go. Women weren’t accepted in the world of art for many years, so their quilts expressed the stories and the aesthetics that mattered to them. You think about all the things that happened in and around quilts—people being born and dying—it’s a functional art as well. This quilt project is being completed by an all-female advisory, an advisory that remains all female by the choice of its members.”
Quilting is also a part of the resurgence of interest in fiber arts as a means of public action. Druger remarked, “I view this convergence of civic engagement with something I’m really passionate about outside of school. I’m inspired by organizations like Women Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action and Quilting Bees in the St. Sabina community and the role of sewing and knitting in the social justice movement. This quilt, like many that have come before it, is a documentation of what is happening in our communities.”
Druger has been leading her advisees in this initiative for the past three years. Reflecting upon this project, as an educator and Parker parent, she said, “Personally, this has been deeply impactful. Ultimately, it comes down to what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore. Many of us have the privilege of not being affected by the ongoing violence in our city and this nation as a whole. So, while most quilts are created for comfort, this quilt is deliberate in its discomfort.”