How to tell kids the unfathomable but necessary story of a busload of students who simply disappeared after being stopped by police? Or explain the agonizing reality that requires a slogan as basic as Black Lives Matter?
Coloring books, of course.
“My niece loves to paint, and I like to draw,” says Celia Ruiz, whose difficult conversation with her niece inspired the ¡Ayotzinapa Vive! coloring book.
Ayotzinapa is the rural town in Mexico where about a hundred students were enrolled in a teachers’ college. They were headed to a fundraising event in another town in September 2014 when police stopped their buses, fired shots and abducted 43 of them who have not been seen or heard from since.
A community organizer, Ruiz was helping to plan events when a caravan from Mexico, on a mission to educate people in the United States about the missing students, made a two-day stop in Kansas City last March. Among the visitors was one of the students who survived the attack and a woman whose son is among the missing.
“It was a huge mobilization, getting our community together and putting together forums to educate our families and communities about what’s happening in Mexico,” Ruiz says.
To help her 9-year-old niece grasp what was going on, Ruiz drew some pictures and invited her to color them.
“As I explained it to her: Something bad really did happen. I’m an adult and I don’t know what happened. I’m trying to make sense of it, and I don’t feel like I’m successful in finding the words. But these images may be a way that you can understand it, and you can I can have a conversation and you tell me what you think. It worked. She got it.”
Ruiz’s organization, Una Lucha KC, works to educate the Latino community about political and social issues that affect the United States and Latin American countries. During the forums with the visitors from Mexico, the idea of coloring books caught the attention of One Struggle KC activist Diane Burkholder, who realized they could also ease conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“A lot of people hear the term but aren’t sure what it means,” Burkholder says. “We wanted to articulate that to community members, particularly children.”
With a Rocket Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation, the two organizations produced three coloring books – ¡Ayotzinapa Vive! and two versions of Words and Images of Black Lives Matter (one for adults and one for children) – and are in the midst of hosting four community events intended to promote healing from trauma through art.
The publications made their debut on Feb. 27, when around 50 people of all ages spent an afternoon drawing, coloring, making crafts and eating lunch at the South Branch of the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library.
Artists Isaac Tapia and Itzel Lopez Vargas contributed images to ¡Ayotzinapa Vive!, which also includes drawings by Ruiz and her niece. Ten artists contributed images, poetry and prose to the Black Lives Matter books.
“We put out a call to artists because we wanted artists to drive this discussion with the community,” Burkholder says. “A lot of times there isn’t space for black artists, particularly here in Kansas City because Kansas City is so segregated and the arts community is so silo-ed off.”
The books aren’t just a way to tell hard stories, Burkholder says. After all, there’s a reason adult coloring books are trendy.
“It’s a way for people to release stress," she notes. But in this case, people can also "reaffirm their blackness through the form of coloring. We have Crayola multicultural crayons and markers available for people who are giving a donation for the books, because those colors aren’t available in larger sets.”
“People are so pleasantly surprised and very happy that we’re talking about this,” says Ruiz. “We’ve not had one negative reaction – not, ‘Why are you doing this, I don’t get this, why a coloring book?’ Instead, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.”
Ruiz says she expects to post downloadable PDFs of the coloring books online by this summer, perhaps incorporating more images from artists who weren’t able to submit for the first printing. Until then, the books will be available at the organizations' final two "healing and art" events in April and May.
Una Lucha KC and One Struggle KC's Día de los Niños (Children’s Day), is scheduled for noon-3 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 6000 Wilson Road, Kansas City, Missouri. Family Field Day is scheduled from noon-3 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, at Shelter 4, Wyandotte County Lake Park, Leavenworth Rd. and 91st St. in Kansas City, Kansas.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.