When National Louis University doctoral student Rochelle Royster helped open an art exhibit of hand-created dolls meant to commemorate victims of Chicago gun violence on June 10, the Chicago Sun-Times was there to cover it.
The article “Dolls Commemorate Lives Lost to Gun Violence,” by Mitch Dudek, described the 1,409 dolls, so far, mounted on a wall of the Hyde Park Art Center. Royster, a Chicago Public Schools special education teacher and art therapist as well as student in NLU’s Community Psychology Ph.D. program, enlisted the help of people at 55 CPS schools and five universities to hand-make each one. She explained the process of making them was therapeutic for people living in violence-wracked communities.
Royster created an art therapy program and art studio at Drake Elementary School in Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, where she teaches. It provides small group and individual art therapy for students, as well as community arts experiences.
“As an art therapist and teacher, I was interested in how the arts can be used to build community,” Royster said.
In 2013, after Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed 50 Chicago Public Schools, Royster said people in the community where she teaches were grieving the loss of those neighborhood institutions and the feeling of stability they engendered.
That’s when a student at her school was suddenly killed, gunned down in a West Side alley far away from his home. Royster said students at her school needed time to grieve his loss, as well as process the losses of many black and brown citizens being killed in the streets, including well-publicized deaths such as Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray and others.
“But beyond that, my students and many of my fellow teachers experience violent death ALL the time,” Royster explained. “When I asked a room full of elementary students how many had known someone who had died from gun violence…they all raised their hands. When I asked teachers…they all had multiple students who had died.
“This trauma and this vicarious traumatization is a phenomenon that no one wants to talk about or deal with or process. Teachers are expected to be caregivers during these difficult times…but, who takes care of the caregiver?
“As a therapist, I knew that I needed to hold space for my students to process the death of their classmate and the constant threat of gun violence.”
Her answer was to start making dolls for those her students knew who had died from gun violence. It then turned into making a doll for each person who had died from gun violence within that year in Chicago.
Royster was studying Community Psychology at NLU at the time, and was also a teaching fellow at the Teacher Institute at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Her colleagues in those settings were looking at transforming classrooms through socially engaged art projects that consider acts of social justice.
Soon after, she became a teaching fellow at Jane Addams Hull House studying trauma-informed critical pedagogy and how it applies to institutional settings. She wrote a lesson plan that included the act of processing grief , gun violence and death through doll making and writing.
She spread the lesson plan to teachers, who began using it in their classrooms in more than 55 CPS schools and universities in Chicago, Philadelphia and Oakland, California–always holding space for reflections and thinking about building communities and relationships.
“That’s fundamental in teaching and in times of crisis, but also fundamental considering how trauma, even vicarious trauma, is affecting youth, classrooms and teachers,” she said.
“So, this work is really a weaving of my professional practices of art therapy, education, and community psychology but also my own wonder and mystery of death and my awe at the hope and resilience of the human spirit that surfaces during these difficult times.”
This exhibit remain at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., Chicago, through June 25, then travel to venues in other South- and West-Side neighborhoods hard hit by gun violence.