Lily Yeh finds beauty in broken places
Her Barefoot Artists project helps heal war-torn, broken, and economically devastated communities through art.
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“Although we are very small, we deliver so much,” Yeh says. “We collaborate and utilize the resources and expertise of volunteering individuals and organizations.”Skip to next paragraph
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Once, when Yeh was building the Village of Arts and Humanities, a neighborhood resident asked her why she was “pouring money into the ground” when there were real problems like AIDS and drug abuse in the community.
Yeh said it was a tough question, but a fair one. Her answer? “I can’t solve these huge social problems, but I can open up new possibilities and spaces where, through creativity and working together, we might come to new solutions.”
And Barefoot Artists has shown it’s not just about painting or art workshops. In Rwanda, it’s launched many innovative programs, including job training in sewing and basket weaving, and a Saturday arts program for children. It has also started a system of microcredit lending which provides community adults, especially women, with money to start their own businesses and to buy livestock.
When Yeh first went to Rwanda seven years ago, the Rugerero survivors’ village of 100 families where she focused her work only had two water taps and no electricity. She obtained grants and partnered with others, including Engineers Without Borders, to bring the village water, sanitation, and solar power.
“It isn’t just the beauty of the artwork,” she says. “It really is a shared prosperity. Not the Wall Street prosperity, not the capitalist prosperity but simply a shared prosperity for all villagers.”
The Palestine trip, Yeh said, was one of the most challenging projects she’s ever undertaken. There were political tensions beyond her control. At one point, she worried about completing her mission.
Yet she persevered. And she left behind a transformative piece of art, covering one wall outside a girls’ school with a mural that so moved residents that they could only say, “Beautiful, beautiful” as they beheld it. The design features an ancient olive tree bursting with huge flowers surrounded by doves of peace in a star-filled night sky. It was inspired by the stories and images that emerged from the workshops she had with residents. Yeh completed the painting with the help of locals and volunteers.
“It’s a new kind of empowerment. People’s minds are opened to new possibilities and affirmation,” Yeh says.
She worked with a local leader and left behind resources so that the new creative energy released in the refugee camp can continue to inspire people to take positive action in their struggle for justice and human dignity. Already, others have requested that someone beautify their buildings – and their lives – with the bright colors brought by Lily Yeh.
“When I see people’s lives transformed for the better, it gives me deep fulfillment,” she says. “It makes my life meaningful.”
• Natalie Pompilio wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She is the co-author of "More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell" (Temple University Press, 2008) and her work appeared in "Best Newspaper Writing 2006" (Poynter Institute).
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