Teachers look beyond ‘cookie-cutter’ signs and banners with community art build

A flier for the community art build shows some of the artist-submitted designs volunteers will screen print this weekend.

Teachers in St. Paul are throwing out the playbook in contract negotiations with the district this year.

Banners, signs and posters in the union’s storage closet are on the way out, too.

Educators, parents, students and community stakeholders will work together on new, artist-designed signs and banners this weekend at a “community art build” co-hosted by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and its sister local in Minneapolis. Organizers hope the event will provide momentum – and unique visuals – for contract campaigns on both sides of the Mississippi.

The public is welcome to participate in the art build, which will take place Friday afternoon through Sunday at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers’ offices, 67 Eighth Ave. NE, Minneapolis. (View the event page on Facebook to learn more or sign up for a shift.)

Shortly after the school year began, SPFT and MFT put out a call to local artists seeking designs that would evoke support for public education. A committee of educators selected a handful of submissions, which volunteers this weekend will screen print onto signs and paint on large banners – and even a parachute, for those looking down on a rally from above.

Sam Yelk, an art teacher at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school in St. Paul, served on the committee. He said the submissions, particularly from student artists, left him “impressed and pleasantly surprised.”

“In a class of 28 sixth-graders, there might be 28 different ideas,” Yelk said. “Any time I’ve given an assignment to students, whatever the level, they always come back with such powerful imagery and ideas. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Such creativity is in keeping with the spirit of SPFT’s groundbreaking contract campaign.

Rather than focusing on wages, benefits and work rules, St. Paul teachers want the district to partner with their union in pressuring corporations and large, tax-exempt organizations to pay their fair share toward closing a projected budget shortfall of $27 million.

“We have a different set of proposals than have really ever been put forth before,” SPFT organizer Mike Asmus said. “We’re trying to facilitate a conversation that’s different, and the art build gives us an opportunity to make something different from the cookie-cutter signs and banners you normally see at union rallies.”

The idea stems from an event held by public school teachers in Milwaukee last year, and at least one Milwaukee teacher will travel to Minneapolis to share advice and show solidarity.

Yelk said he envisions a powerful, positive event that brings together families who share a belief in the promise of public schools.

“We’ll be there to have fun and to express our shared hopes,” he said. “This is what’s right for our families and our students; this is what we should be doing.”

“It’s a bunch of people getting together to do artwork. I’ve never seen that turn into a brawl.”

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