If you’ve ever met Sara Trail, you know what an amazing and remarkable force she is. It’s easy to leave every single conversation with her feeling inspired and invigorated… ready to do something, to start something, to work on something important. That she has that effect on most people explains a lot about her path, about how she came to be where she is today. It brought her to found the Social Justice Sewing Academy, to work with countless volunteers to create memory quilts and remembrance banners, to meet with grieving families in hopes of offering them small bits of solace to both fuel the ongoing fight and add bits of peace within the quiet moments… She has made an unimaginable difference in the lives of many and she’s just getting started.
We had the opportunity to talk with Sara a few weeks ago to hear more about her story and we’re delighted to share that conversation with all of you. We’ll share segments over the next few months, along with developments in the SJSA Remembrance project, SJSA student art features, new collaborative opportunities, and more. We’ll add a few guiding headers into the interview here and there, but we felt it was important to let Sara tell her story in her own words and in her own way.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? About how you got started and what inspired you to create the Social Justice Sewing Academy?
I’ve been sewing since I was four. When I was 12, I wrote a book with C&T Publishing called Sew with Sara that taught teens and tweens how to sew. It was soon followed with an instructional DVD. I was then blessed with opportunities to do two fabric collections along with a Simplicity pattern collection, all before the age of 16. As a result, I was offered a lot of national opportunities to teach young people how to sew. The classes mostly focused on the projects from the book and DVD– tote bags, PJs, and things like that…
While it was an incredible experience for me at such a young age, I soon realized that the classes were mostly filled with kids from a more socio-economically affluent background. It felt like I was perpetuating privilege with who had the access, the opportunity, and more importantly, the resources to opt into the spaces where I was offering the sewing lessons. The classes weren’t free… they were expensive. You had to buy my book and my patterns and all those things prevented a huge group of kids from the opportunity to take part. So, after realizing who I was teaching, I started to wonder if it was really the best use of my time. I became disheartened, angry, and hurt… livid, really. Then, everything intensified when Trayvon was murdered.
I remember sharing the news with other quilters in a sew along class… saying ‘Trayvon got murdered this weekend, you know… what are we going to do?’ The response that I got was mostly something like ‘oh, that sucks’ and then it was back to the regularly scheduled program. There was no collective sense of responsibility, no real acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation… no outrage. I think it was due to me being 16 and Black and them being mostly older adults and white. So, it felt like my disconnect with the quilting community– with those mentors, loved ones, and teachers– was really amplified when Trayvon was murdered. I realized that they weren’t invested in my best interests or the things that mattered to me. With that, I shifted focus a little. I was getting ready to make this double wedding ring quilt… but for what? To learn someone else’s technique? I started to reevaluate my priorities and how I wanted to spend my time. I made an art quilt of Trayvon. It just featured his face in a hoodie… a haunting image of his eyes.
It took me a while. While it wasn’t my first art quilt, it was definitely the first one I’d made where I wasn’t trying to copy someone’s technique. It was an original design, inspired by a photo, but it was all my own. I made it for me. After I made the quilt, I was hit with a lot of backlash from the same people in the industry who had seemingly adored me, something that truly exposed the prominent and dominant subculture of white supremacy in quilting. The whole thing amplified a quote that I learned later on from Arundhati Roy: “There’s no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”
As a 12-year-old author, I’d never really felt either. I was allowed to speak. I was allowed to teach. I was allowed to let other kids learn how to sew. I was able to say sewing should be accessible, and so on… But I can’t say sewing should be accessible and then have every class that I teach require a $75 entry fee. I can’t control the spaces that want me to teach, nor can I control their process. My reaction to all of that… to that part of the injustice, was to make Trayvon.
Later, through teaching, going to UC Berkeley, and really entering into education, I was exposed to all these other young kids who had also had a Trayvon moment, or a Trayvon issue that was like, ‘Hey, this is my issue. This is what I’m passionate about. This is what I care about.’ After I showed my quilt, I encountered others who would say ‘Well, you know, we don’t have access to sewing, and we’d like to learn.’ So, I decided to figure out how to do it… how to make a change and turn some things around. I applied for grants and actually got a grant from UC Berkeley. This amazing woman, Mary Crabb, was really the most instrumental in getting me started. She’s the one who helped me write the application to get the grant. The grant allowed me to put together a Summer program. After I graduated from Berkeley, I ran a 6-week critical education program combined with hands-on, high quality sewing instruction for FREE. So… six weeks of a Summer program that was completely free! We provided rotary cutters, rulers, and sewing machines. They were given a class that carried extreme value, something that would have been expensive, that UC Berkeley subsidized.
That was really how it all started. It wasn’t just making art– which is much of what all my other sewing classes have been– it was truly so much more. We incorporated research on social justice and education on current events… something that turned our classes into research-informed art practices. The quilts that the students made weren’t just ‘I care about it, let me make art about it.’ We did youth participatory action research where the students became the researchers. They did their own qualitative studies– reaching out, getting interviews, and using the kind of the methodologies that I learned at UC Berkeley.
I was like, ‘You know, you guys don’t have to go to college to be researchers. You don’t have to go to college to be artists. Let’s decolonize and dismantle the system of You’re nobody until you go to college.’ Obviously, I accept the privileges and the intersection of my own background, but I also wrote a book at 12. You don’t have to go get a PhD to write a book. You’ve just got to get started, have the drive and the competence, and have something worth writing about. I appreciated being able to share all of that. I do so while acknowledging the privilege of having college educated parents and a solid support system. But, it’s really just important to remember that youth can be scholars and researchers, too. We need to flip the narrative on whose voice is valued, whose voice matters, whose art matters… you know?
Who gets exhibitions… only artists with 20 years of experience? Why isn’t the work of up-and-coming or first-time artists not worthy of an exhibition? Who’s enforcing the institutionalized values on what type of art matters? Consider Picasso– his art only blew up after his death. I’m just saying, let’s give people their flowers now, not at their funeral. I try to encourage the students… to stress that they can be artists and they can exhibit their art. Their statements are just as powerful as Faith Ringgold’s. Their quilts might not sell like Faith’s, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. We can be artists now, and more importantly, not just artists… let’s push that term. Let’s become artivists, because we’re wanting our art to encourage people to take action and become socially engaged in some of the issues that we’re making art about. So that’s kind of awesome.
When was it that you were first able to exhibit the work of your students?
It was at Harvard. I graduated from UC Berkeley in December of 2015. I led the summer program there in the Summer of 2016 and started my master’s program at Harvard in Fall of 2017. I had the quilts that these kids had made, and I was doing my own research on how art and social engagement intersect… how research techniques can empower youth autonomy and agency, and really increase their sociopolitical levels. So, I just asked: ‘You guys have a gallery space downstairs. I know that people have been in line forever, but I made some really cool quilts last Summer with these amazing kids and I’d love to bring them in. Then when we have our research fair and the quilts will be all around us.’ They loved it… kids, quilts, education… sure! They moved some stuff around, shortened some of their own exhibits, and allowed the kids’ quilts to hang in Harvard for the first month.
Being able to FaceTime, post on Instagram, and tell these kids, ‘You made these quilts and just a few months later, they’re hanging in Harvard!’ That was huge. At first, I didn’t have any idea how I was going to get them exhibited. I thought that I could use my sewing network… my connections through C&T. At the bare minimum, I knew I could get their quilts in the kids quilt shows. But, it was more than that… bigger than that. And I think that was always my goal. I didn’t necessarily expect it to happen so quickly, but after they got seen at Harvard, Harvard wrote an article. From there, we were able to do more and offer more workshops… everything just took off!
Founded in 2017, the Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) is a youth education program that bridges artistic expression with activism to advocate for social justice. Through a series of hands-on workshops in schools, prisons and community centers across the country, SJSA empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change. Many of our young artists make art that explores issues such as gender discrimination, mass incarceration, gun violence and gentrification. The powerful imagery they create in cloth tells their stories, and these quilt blocks are then sent to volunteers around the world to embellish and embroider before being sewn together into quilts to be displayed in museums, galleries and quilt shows across the country. This visual dialogue bridges differences in race, age and socioeconomics and sparks conversations and action in households across the country.
+ The Social Justice Sewing Academy’s Remembrance Project
+ Information on Quilts of Remembrance
+ The SJSA Remembrance Project #sew4justice
+ Raising Social Justice Awareness One Quilt at a Time | Huffpost 2017
+ The Creativity Project Week #31: Sara Trail | Leland Ave Studios 2018
+ Craft Industry Alliance, Episode #155 | 2019
+ Threads of Diversity | Collaboration with Aurifil Threads
Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion, and to become agents of social change. The powerful imagery they create in cloth tells their stories, exploring issues such as gender discrimination, mass incarceration, gun violence, and gentrification. This visual dialogue bridges differences in race, age, and socioeconomics and sparks conversations and action in households across the country. Threads of Diversity was inspired by these honest and powerful works of art, curated to ensure that all makers have the tools needed to represent our vibrant, creative, and diverse community.