Who is going to push you to learn? The Social Justice Sewing Academy (Part 1)

Editor Emilia recently sat down (virtually) with Sara Trail, Founder and Director of the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA). Originally intended to be a Sewcialist interview, we decided to work the interview material and supplementary information from the SJSA website into an article format. This is a new format for us—hopefully you enjoy it!


What is the Social Justice Sewing Academy? The SJSA is a non-profit based in the San Francisco Bay Area that does textile art with youth from under-resourced communities. Founded in 2017, the Academy delivers hands-on workshops in schools, prisons and community centres across the United States of America. In the workshops, young artists use textile art to explore issues and tell stories centred on the topics they want to engage with. The resulting quilt blocks are then sent to volunteers for embellishment and embroidery, before being stitched into quilts and displayed in museums, galleries and quilt shows.

Image of a quilt which combines square blocks made by youth about social justice topics.
The blocks for this Revolution quilt were made by youth at SJSA workshops, then pieced together by volunteers.

SJSA partners with schools and students ahead of the short workshops, to ensure the content is aligned both with their curriculum and with the topics that are of most interest to the students.

The workshops are one or two days long, and the first 3-4 hours of a workshop is all learning on the topics chosen. We have workshops on different subjects. Participants are given an overview on what the youth dictate they want to spend their time learning about, and then they make art—their making art is no sewing involved—it’s just textiles, fabrics, scissors and glue. They make the blocks and then we mail them off to an embroidery volunteer. So a few hours of learning or unlearning, depending on what type of school system they are in, and then they make art.

—Sara Trail, interview

This workshop format allows for the perfect balance of exploring a topic and ensuring the students have sufficient time to make their art. It also ensures that the art process is accessible to all, by using glue instead of trying to teach any stitching.

A young person cuts fabric and lays out fabric pieces to create a picture of a person standing below the sun.
Making a quilt block during a workshop.

The next step in the process is that the quilt blocks are sent to volunteers for embellishment, through the addition of embroidery, for example. The Academy has a LOT of volunteers—around three or four thousand—and the inclusion of the volunteers is about a lot more than utilising their sewing, embroidery, or quilting skills:

Many of our young artists make art that explores issues such as gender discrimination, mass incarceration, gun violence and gentrification. The powerful imagery they create in cloth tells their stories, and these quilt blocks are then sent to volunteers around the world to embellish and embroider before being sewn together into quilts to be displayed in museums, galleries and quilt shows across the country. This visual dialogue bridges differences in race, age and socio-economics, and sparks conversations and action in households across the country.

—SJSA website (http://www.sjsacademy.org/what-we-do.html)
Close up image of a quilt block that says "Black Lives Matter" in bright text on a dark background.
Youth are encouraged to explore topics that are relevant to their lives, like in this Liberation quilt from 2018.

This powerful interaction between the young people involved, the issues they care about, and the (often white, middle class) volunteers is critical to flipping the narrative on who is centred in this space. The volunteers do not get a choice in the topics of the blocks they assist with, and are firmly set right in their expectations if they try. That aspect of the SJSA process speaks to the rationale behind why it was founded, and to what the Academy aims to achieve.

Why was the SJSA founded? Sara tells us she started SJSA after the murder of Trayvon Martin. If you don’t know the story of Trayvon Martin, we encourage you to read about him and his untimely death at the age of only 17. Sara is only 14 days younger than Trayvon Martin was, so his death shook her in the realisation that that could have been her or one of her friends.

Quilt depicting Trayvon Martin against a cream background.
Rest in Power Trayvon – a quilt by Sara Trail

I started SJSA after Trayvon Martin got murdered, and I realised that the quilting community didn’t necessarily care about aspects of black identity as much as I wanted it to, in the sense of like maybe the collective sense of inaction, maybe the collective sense of “oh it’s not our problem”. I realised if it wasn’t the type of environment that I wanted it to be then I needed to carve out a space for anti-racist quilters that wanted to care about youth voice and to just have a different mindset than some more traditional forms of sewing.


—Sara Trail, interview

This sense of a cocoon of privilege wrapped around the quilting community is one that echoes across the Black Lives Matter debate and movements such as Black Makers Matter. The quilting and broader sewing community have an issue with diversity in representation that is grounded in traditionalism and attitudes such as “sewing shouldn’t be political”.

Quilt square that says "Respect is accepting difference", with dark text on white background.
“Respect is Accepting Difference” square from a workshop in 2019.

In our interview Sara was very clear on the need for a form of deliberate allyship from white people in those cocoons. She sees that something very intentional is missing, that it’s not enough to just wave this away because you don’t live in a diverse community. She challenges people to seek out and intentionally build relationships across all sorts of dimensions (e.g. age range and sexuality), not just ethnicity.

Everyone should have a diverse friend group, because if not, and you are in too much of a like-minded group, who is going to push you to learn? Who is going to push you to listen to other people’s opinions?

—Sara Trail, interview

In this first part of the article we have covered why the SJSA was founded and how their process works. Part 2 will discuss how and where the SJSA quilts end up displayed, the reception they receive and the issues of privilege in the quilting and sewing community.


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