How a Mexican Artist Paints His Way to Social Change

By Dana Preston, HIP Program Manager I’m not going to lie. I’ve always been slightly skeptical about the potential of art as a tool to heal. Maybe that’s because I was a terrible art student as a kid, or perhaps because I didn’t grow up in an artistic family. Nevertheless, today my mind was changed. And it happened at an unlikely venue: an international forum on philanthropy. The WINGS Forum 2017 in Mexico City to be exact. It all happened during a concurrent session co-organized by my very own organization, HIP, and the International Community Foundation. As I had not been involved in this noble effort to create an engaging session about innovative leadership for social change, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the presenter handing out blank paper and colored pencils as people filled the room. Alfredo “Libre” Gutierrez, our esteemed presenter from Tijuana, began showing us slides of gorgeous, colorful, and bigger-than-life murals that brightened up drab buildings in poor neighborhoods in Mexico. He explained that he purposely chooses places affected by poverty, drugs, and violence. In a seemingly bleak setting, Libre arrives, sets up shop, and waits for community members to get curious about his murals. In a participatory process, Libre, along with the local adults and children, co-create. From the concept of the design to each paint stroke, the mural ends up being by and for the community. Libre is a visual artist and innovative leader who uses art as a tool for social change around the world. In Mexico, he described the way that communities knocked down by organized crime and violence can come together around art. The process of creating the murals together promotes social cohesion. It also allows the locals to reclaim public spaces notorious for being dangerous and transform them into places of collective pride. At this point of the presentation, I think just about everyone was in awe of the awesome healing power of art that Libre was clearly demonstrating to us. But in case there were some non-believers left, he challenged us to try it out for ourselves (remember the paper and colored pencils I mentioned?). He asked us to describe our philanthropic work through art. For the next 15 minutes, the audience got serious about coloring. It was fascinating to see how some people were more reserved and shy about getting creative while others seemed thrilled to have the chance to let their artistic side out. My personal experience was one of quiet joy; it was therapeutic to create images in representation of ideas and feelings. By the end, I was convinced. I truly recognized the healing power of art. If I was able to experience it during a 90-minute presentation, I can’t imagine the potential for people living in situations of extreme marginalization and violence. I believe everyone left that presentation inspired, and more curious about promoting art as a tool of social change in their work. I know I certainly did. So thank you WINGS and thank you International Community Foundation for challenging philanthropy to play a role in supporting innovative leaders like Libre.