Dorothy Garcia and Tom Harding are the founders of Art Aids Art, an organization that works to make huge differences in communities in South Africa that were touched deeply by the apartheid. Their work is truly focused on rebuilding lives from the inside out, creating a sense of empowerment in those who have spent decades under government segregation. Love and Water featured an interview with Tom in February, and now brings his voice back along with Dorothy’s to help spread the word about the incredibly passionate work of Art Aids Art.
Love and Water- Tell us how Art Aids Art came to be.
Tom Harding- We are all educators, and started Art Aids Art from a place of being teachers. We had gone to South Africa and met an incredible acting team who invited us back to work on a theater project. It was at the time of the 1999 elections, and they were doing a project about the responsibilities that go along with the rights of a democracy. So we went down and were completely taken by the energy and enthusiasm of the young people- the vision they had for themselves and for their country amidst incredibly challenging circumstances. We were so inspired and returned a year later and found when working with educational projects in the townships, the people were so ready to receive and so ready to take advantage of what we were giving to them that our energies were multiplied many times over. We knew we wanted to continue working there. We discovered a bead work project that some residents were working on and brought a suitcase full of bead work back to the U.S. with us. When people saw it they immediately wanted them. We had a sale at a friend’s house and sold all of the work. The profits from that one suitcase enabled a group in South Africa to open an art studio. So we realized that if one suitcase of bead work can do that much then we need to do more of that. We ironically had a friend contact us to say that his former seventh grade teacher in El Paso wanted to find a project to support with a portion of her retirement funds. She gave us the seed money to start the non-profit.
L&W- What was your experience like getting involved with Art Aids Art, Dorothy?
Dorothy Garcia- I went on an educational project to South Africa on sabbatical from my teaching job, and when I returned I left my job. The possibility and opportunity to participate in being the change had never felt so potent and possible. The knowledge of our own history in this country made me begin to wonder what America would be like without a Civil War. During the apartheid there was a moment when the truth and reconciliation became part of the process of ending racial segregation in South Africa- Tutu, Mandella, Winnie Mandella, who I’ve learned so much about. We have skills as teachers and researchers, and are able to pass our knowledge along within classrooms, but we’ve learned that it is most important to make connections with people. I’m a brown-skinned female and Tom is a white male, and in South Africa it was not uncommon for Tom to be the first white person the people we met ever had any contact with. And I saw that at times Tom had a disproportionate opportunity to be in charge, because these people who had been segregated for so long were used to being told what to do. When we talked to our friends back here about what we learned, they wanted to know what we could use from them to help make our connections deeper. For example, we collected over 700 black dolls from teachers over the years and distributed them. We’ve had so many people contribute creative art projects that have helped tremendously by allowing us to give them to these people and making them understand that they matter to us.
L&W- How often do you go back to South Africa?
TH- It really depends. Now we’ve opened eKhaya eKasi, an art & education center serving families in Khayelitsha, South Africa. After years of planning, a woman contacted us to say she was selling her plot of land and thought she would see if we could do anything with it. Dorothy was having her 50th birthday, and had a Wizard of Oz-themed party and asked everyone to donate to buy a “yellow brick” to build this community center. From that party we were able to buy the plot of land which had a small building on it, and built an even larger community center on it. A friend of mine from Harvard School of Design got some students together and did an incredible mock-up of how the center could be built. Five of them got funding and flew down with us where we met with the community and finished the designs of the building. It’s just been an incredible outpouring of people giving whatever they have to make all of our projects come together. Now we go back once or twice a year to work with the staff and help support the work of the men and women there to help make it a sustainable center.
DG- It means something significant to them that we said we were coming back and then did actually come back. Part of their experience with Apartheid was being gone from home for so long, and having their families not knowing when they were going to return. And when they did return it was like a miracle. They walked up big hills and saw their families, as if magic had occurred to bring them back. So it really means so much to them to hear us say we will return and then we do. I want them to know that it’s not magic- we’re going to continue to return as often as we can. That may take some getting used to for them, but I want them to get used to it.
L&W- I know the bead parties you host are an incredibly simple and fun way for people to help and get involved from the States.
TH- anyone can host a bead party. We provide the bead work made by the women of South Africa and literature on it, and if we can be there in person we usually attend. When it’s too far away for us to go, we have a kit with all the information. It’s a great way to share with friends some great art work while learning about ways to help those in need.
DG- We photograph each person who makes a bead purchase and give those photos to the artists in South Africa who have made them, and it makes them so happy. I was born Japanese-Mexican, grew up in Pasadena and my mother worked in sweat shops when I was younger so that her children wouldn’t have to, and I can see very clearly that in South Africa the women do their bead work so their children will have better lives as well. We’ve collected stories from women over time, which are on our website, but none of the women say that they want their daughters to do what they’re doing. They want them to become presidents, doctors, lawyers- you name it. The combination of AIDS and the rape factor and violence against women is astronomical, so we are working to give some respite to the people in our community so they can focus on new and exciting things.
L&W- What is the most moving experience you’ve had so far?
DG- When I go back and everybody there remembers us is very moving. In my zeal and my earnestness very early on, we were invited to the home of one of the “shackies,” who are extremely isolated, pushed furthest out of communities, for tea. We walked for a long while on inclines through mud to get to their homes. All the older women know how to serve high tea, because it was part of their service work for families during the apartheid. So they made tea, but since there were only three of them living in that home there were only three tea cups. So they had to wait until we finished and then they used our cups and had their tea. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. I grew up in Pasadena in a poor area, but I didn’t know it was poor until people told me we were living in a ghetto. I could identify beyond that. I feel like I naturally identify with these people for similar reasons. It’s truly incredible.
L&W- What else do you want people to know about Art Aids Art?
TH- To know that each person has the capacity to contribute. If you don’t think you have that, then go out and ask, because I know with us we’ve had massage therapists, chiropractors, teachers, young people who were good at a sport, and all of them were able to contribute more than they could have realized. It’s often a skill that someone has that can help others gain that skill and the confidence to do it as well, and that is invaluable.
DG- As teachers, I have bitched and moaned my whole life about how I didn’t make enough money. But having the experience of being a rich person has really changed my life. To go there and realize that my $5.00 could really save a life, I’m thinking “you’re kidding me, right?” But it can provide so much for them with this little bit of money. We’re prepared to meet whatever we can head-on, especially the simple things like cooking food with them, and recognizing that certain women know how to sing and video taping them so they can see themselves. Those things are the amazing things we learn while there, and that we realize are the ways in which they begin to change from within.