Art Ed Profile: Jasmin Eli-Washington, Part 1

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What got you interested in making art?

I’ve always liked to make art, I remember, since I was a young child. But I guess the older I got, it wasn’t encouraged as much. I know my dad really wanted me to be in the armed forces when I graduated high school, and I wanted to be a teacher, so I started doing an early childhood program, and I remember I took a class here [CCNY]. I can’t remember the professor’s name, but she made it so amazing, like all of those connections that art has with learning made me want to teach art. I know my mom used to say I always did these amazing things. She saves them. She shows me. When I look back on it I’m like, that’s pretty good shading for a little kid!

I didn’t even know I was making art when I was young. It was just always another person’s reaction: “Oh my god, Jasmin, that’s amazing. This is beautiful. Did you paint that? Did you draw that? Did you make that?” It was never me saying that I’m going to paint this most wonderful portrait of my mom. It was always me feeling the need to make something, and people’s reactions let me know, okay, I think I’m probably good at this.

Are there key moments from growing up that made you want to be a teacher?

Hating my teachers. It was like if I ever had a chance to teach, I’m not going to do it like that. I’m going to make it so that the kids want to listen and understand. I don’t know if it was when I was going through a rough stage or the teachers just didn’t care or I just had no idea, but high school sucked for the whole freshmen to senior year. It was just, “This shit is disgusting. I don’t want to be here.” It was like algebra is boring, calculus is boring, everything just bored the crap out of me except for art class, so that’s how I graduated. It kind of got me through. Knowing that I did not like the way teachers taught me, made me want to try to do it. “The job can’t be that freaking hard!” But it is, and I’m so sorry. I wish I could go back and apologize to every teacher that I ever gave a hard time. I swear because now some of my students are giving it to me like tenfold. And [teachers are] so brave to stand up there and be challenged by us and not realize that some of us are going through major stuff at home that we bring into the classroom because we spend most of our waking moments inside the school.

How does that affect the way you try to connect with your students?

Not so much as a student, but more as a cultural thing. Thank god I have hip hop culture because that has made me able to make so many connections with my students … Regardless of being born in 1970 or 2005, we were still born in the United States, so if you like hip hop from 1982 or hip hop from 2002, it’s still that same culture. It’s always a surprise when I’m in touch with what they like, and then when they know hip hop from my time.

Like what for example?

One of my students would not turn off this Jay Z song. I can’t remember right now … what was it? “I just wanna Picasso in my casa in my castle,” because the name of the song is “Picasso Baby.”

Jasmin: “Turn it off.”

Student: “The name of the song is Picasso Baby.”

Jasmin: “I know.”

Student: “Isn’t that an artist? Don’t you like that kind of stuff?”

Jasmin: “I like art and hip hop, period.”

Student: “You don’t like hip hop that much.”

Jasmin: “If I could rap the entire song for you, would you turn that crap off?”

Student: “You’ll never be able to do it!”

And I did it. [“Picasso Baby”]

He turned it off so fast. He was like, “I didn’t know you knew hip hop, miss, you didn’t even miss a word!” I like some stuff, some stuff I don’t. I just can’t really stand stuff that’s degrading to women, but some stuff I really like. When they know they can connect with me on a level that’s not academic, that’s when they start paying a little more attention academically. All of that stuff kind of helps. I don’t think I would be as comfortable teaching students that aren’t the same ethnicity, that didn’t share some of that same hip hop culture, that didn’t have some of the same economic background I have. I wouldn’t be as comfortable—not that I wouldn’t be able to do it—but it would be a different kind of circumstance.

I taught grade school for about five years, and then I made a jump to high school. And I really liked it, but there was some political bureaucracy going on there with [between me] and the assistant principal of the high school. I got really charged by a lot of things that were happening. My high school students that year were more socially conscientious than I was aware of.

So your art projects tackled social issues?

The first couple of weeks it was like, “All these kids don’t care anything about that.” But the more we started making those connections—they knew that I was from the same culture as them, and they opened up and started talking to me. There was even some … I don’t want to say protests, but sit-ins for the people who were in charge of this school to pay more attention to things that were happening. I had kids confess to me that they were being frisked by the police on their way to lunch, even after they gave all their school IDs. I even caught one of my students in the middle of being frisked, and I’m asking the officers, “Excuse me, you have a reason for doing that?”

Officer: “Who are you, his mom?”

Jasmin: “No I’m his teacher.” He looked at him and looked at me.

Officer: “Is that your teacher?”

Jasmin: “He’s a good student. What are you doing?”

Officer: “Oh, I don’t know. What’s he doing walking around out here at 12 in the afternoon?”

Jasmin: “It’s called lunch, that’s what he’s doing. Walking out of school at 12 in the afternoon. He’s going to get lunch.”

Student: [Looking at Jasmin] “No one ever did anything like that for me before and stood up to the police for me before.”

Jasmin: “Does this happen to you a lot?”

Student: “Yeah.”

Jasmin: “I don’t want you to feel bad because you’re not the only person that this happens to a lot.”

Student: “That’s the reason I feel bad because I know that I’m not the only person that this happens to a lot.”

Yeah, they saw all these murals, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, and they made these crazy art projects … One student painted an African-American man that was being strangled by an American flag, and I think that was what set my assistant principal ablaze.

It’s really important to have a principal or an assistant principal that respects the arts because they don’t get the motivation as to why it’s ok to have this self-expression, and then they get offended by everything.

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What did you notice when you gave them the opportunity to express things about some of the injustices that were happening in their lives?

They started asking questions about other things. If the history teacher planned a lesson and the lesson wasn’t geared towards answering questions that they had about race or how our country was built, the teacher was forced to listen to what the students wanted to learn, and then teach them that.

I can’t give you a history lesson about why there’s racial inequality because I have to teach you about shading and contrast and blending and all the other elements of art. But now that you know that’s up for discussion, ask another teacher to help you out. In that way, when you come back to the room, you can use the arts to express your opinion better.

You understand what I’m trying to say? Why don’t we use red, black, and green to talk about Black nationalists’ flag? Who were the first black nationalists? Has anyone heard of the Black Panther Party? What does the symbol of an “afro” mean?

Read part 2 of her interview here.

Interview and photos by Chris Parkman. The format has been altered slightly to help convey the lyrical tone of Jasmin’s interview. Transcription by Chironjit Das.
Sponsored by the CCNY Department of Art Education

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