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Quilt Trip

The Social Justice Sewing Academy is teaching an old form of social media to a new generation of marginalized students.

The afternoon quilting workshop at Hillcrest Elementary School in San Francisco, California, meets in a mobile classroom behind the main building. The school day is over, and 16 kids have meandered across the basketball court, dropped their backpacks, and headed for a table piled high with colorful fabric. They fan out into low chairs and pick up where they left off last time, cutting out silhouettes and gluing block letters. A red appliqué stop sign reads Stop Deportation. The letters LGBTQ underscore a feminine face with a wisp of a black mustache and the words Let Me Be Me.

The classroom door swings open and in swoops Sara Trail, the 23-year-old founder of the Social Justice Sewing Academy, which organizes these quilting bees for activist youth. She's raced over from her day job teaching high school courses to incarcerated adults.

Trail says that social justice work became urgent for her when she was a high school senior in the wealthy Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek. It was February of 2012, she recalls, and she'd just celebrated her 17th birthday. On the opposite side of the country, a boy she didn't know had also just turned 17—someone she might never have heard of, except that, shortly after his birthday, his slaying made national news. It was Trayvon Martin.

Trail was one of the few black kids in her neighborhood. When Martin was killed, she says, she didn't yet fear the police. She says that her parents were protective and focused on scholarly achievements. "I did swimming and reading and piano," Trail says. And, from age four, she sewed.

Quilting enabled Trail to express the intense feelings that Martin's death aroused. "So I started making my first art quilt," she says, "which was Trayvon's face."

A few months later, she began her freshman year at the University of California–Berkeley. She also began tutoring at a nearby public school and decided to try using craft as a way for students to comment on the issues that touched their own lives.

Quilting might seem too quiet and slow to hold teenagers' attention. It's hardly a modern hobby but has always been a kind of social media. For centuries, quilting circles have been a space for women to discuss their lives and to seek support. And quilts themselves have served as a mode of communication where others failed or posed a threat.

At the end of her senior year at Berkeley, Trail founded the SJSA with a small grant, which she used to buy sewing machines, supplies, and public transit tickets for students. In the mornings, she taught ethnic studies and critical consciousness. In the afternoons, the issues would inspire sketches for a quilt square. If a student showed interest in redlining, "we would look at maps of their area, find out how many buildings had been foreclosed, how many families were given predatory loans," Trail says.

Through Instagram, Trail has built a worldwide network of seasoned quilters, to whom she mails the students' fabric squares for final stitching. Most volunteers are older, white, and living in places where they rarely come into direct contact with youth from marginalized communities.

When Bianca Mercado participated in an SJSA workshop as a 17-year-old at her high school in Massachusetts, she created an alphabet quilt with 26 social justice statements. Her "C is for Colorism" block was mailed to Colleen Haraden-Gorski, a water-resource specialist in California. Haraden-Gorski researched color discrimination and decided to stitch in a rectangle of brown fabric, alongside which a second volunteer added another small rectangle with a script reading "brown paper bag." The added detail refers to the history of creating hierarchies among African Americans based on how their skin tones compared to brown paper. Now, Mercado's quilt is touring exhibitions around the country, where it often hangs among more traditional patterns, surprising viewers accustomed to tamer geometries. From the quiet patchwork of fabric, the young artist's voice speaks loud and clear.