How Art Illuminates Unsung Heroes in Education

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“Food for Thought” exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry | Provided Photo

When Terri Downey-Holton, a training specialist in food and nutrition services at Baltimore City Schools, was recognized in a special art exhibit, she felt understood.

“To be a part of this, for someone to really acknowledge our work after all these years, is really important,” she says. “We’re finally appreciated, and it’s a really good feeling since we were overlooked for so long.”

That’s what art does—it helps us recognize others and show our appreciation, especially for those who often operate under the radar or behind the scenes. Giving people a platform for their stories can help us connect with them.

In education, there are a lot of moving parts that come together to ensure a student is learning and thriving in a school environment. The efforts of unsung heroes to keep these parts in place were noticed even more at the start of the pandemic, when students who relied on one-on-one support, classroom interaction and daily meals did not have access to those resources in the same way.

Even while school buildings were closed, teachers were working hard to administer online classes for their students, and food service workers were still delivering meals so that students who relied on them each day did not go hungry.
Collectively, BCPS staff prepared more than 11 million meals during the 2021-2022 school year.

Wanda Moore | Photo by J. M. Giordano

For the first time, these school food service workers are being recognized by the wider community, thanks to a special exhibit, on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through the end of the year. It provides an opportunity to put names and faces to this important work and illuminate the stories of these hometown heroes.

“Food for Thought: Spotlighting Food Service Workers at Baltimore City Public Schools” features interviews with nine area food service workers, all either currently working or having worked to provide students with healthy, filling meals throughout the day.

It combines photography by J.M. Giordano with art by Laura Lynn Emberson of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and three student art contest winners. These visuals pair with audio by podcaster Aaron Henkin, who has previously worked with the BMI for its Bethlehem Steel Legacy Project.

The idea for the exhibit came about in 2021, when the museum was holding its first-ever outdoor exhibit: “Women of Steel,” honoring women working in the steel industry. BMI’s community programs manager, Auni Gelles, recalls that BCPS staff approached the museum about doing a similar exhibit to recognize Baltimore-area teachers and food service workers.

“We really leaned into first-person stories and audio storytelling as part of our Bethlehem Steel Legacy project,” says Gelles, also on the “Food for Thought” curatorial team, “and found that an audio format was a great way for workers to tell their own stories in their own ways.”

“A lot of people don’t really understand what we do,” says Sheila Alston, one of the nine workers featured in the exhibit. Alston worked as a BCPS food service worker for 37 years. “I think it’s an opportunity for people to really see what food service is all about.”

BCPS’s food service workers play an important role in the lives of the children they feed. According to St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty, one in three Baltimore City children lives in a food desert and does not have access to the healthy meals they need to thrive. Food insecurity is a persistent problem in the Baltimore area, with Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” project revealing 21.3% of Baltimore County residents are classified as food insecure.

Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Industry

Through art, community members can learn about this essential work, and more importantly, say thank you.
“Food for Thought” includes a hands-on component to thank food service staff for their underappreciated work, including a letter-writing station to send notes to workers who impacted them as students, with wider letter-writing campaigns being planned for the future.

In much the same way, students entering the Virginia Lottery’s annual “Thank a Teacher” art contest have found a way to thank teachers that have affected them in a positive way.

Jocelyn Turman, an eighth grade student at Edward Drew Middle School in Fredericksburg, Virginia—about 45 minutes southwest of Quantico, in Northern Virginia—won the contest in 2022. Beginning with a campaign from 2016 to 2017 that collected notes to teachers who’d had a positive impact on people’s lives, the art contest determining the illustrations that would appear on these notes began in 2018.

“Teachers deal with so much every single day. They are underpaid, work long hours, teach multiple classes and have to teach so many different students,” says Jocelyn. “I think it’s amazing that they can deal with all of that and still support all of us.”

Jocelyn Turman, “Thank a Teacher” art contest middle school winner 2022 | Provided Photo

The contest racked up 700 entries for 2023, with judging for the elementary, middle and high school divisions currently underway. In addition to having student art featured, the school districts of each winner will also receive money for purchasing additional school supplies.

“We know that our educators are going above and beyond each and every day to shape the lives of Virginia’s future leaders,” says Jennifer Mullen, the lottery’s director of public affairs and community relations. “They’re putting in the blood, sweat and tears every single day to work with these students. I think every Virginian should be thanking them for what they do.”

All proceeds of the state’s lottery also benefit public education.

For Jocelyn, using art to show her appreciation for her favorite teachers is only fitting. She lists her elementary and middle school art teachers among the ones who have impacted her the most, helping her discover her passion for art.

“I think art is special because it’s a way to show the world how you see things… There are so many different kinds of art in which to express yourself, and I love that everyone’s art is unique to them,” she says.

Though art can be a great tool for education, the very nature of art is one that can connect us with people and ideas around us—and as it educates us, it also brings to light the teachers and staff members that make that education possible.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Terri Downey-Holton’s name as Terri Downey-Hilton. Baltimore’s Child regrets this error.

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