Use arts and culture as a platform for social justice, says this teen - Generocity Philly

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Nov. 19, 2019 1:47 pm

Use arts and culture as a platform for social justice, says this teen

"It is so important for local artists of all mediums to spread these strong messages," says Sabirah Mahmud, a member of the STAMP Teen Council, and Global Climate Strike activist.

Climate change is an issue that has drawn young people onto the streets to protest across the globe — including Sabirah Mahmud, this week's guest columnist.

(Photo by Flickr user Stuart Rankin, used under a Creative Commons license)

This guest column was written by Sabirah Mahmud, a member of the STAMP Teen Council, a state leader for the Global Climate Strike and a junior at the Academy at Palumbo.

Editor’s note: STAMP (Students at Museums in Philly) provides free admission for teens between the ages of 14-19 to 25 museums in Philadelphia. A program of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, STAMP increases access to the arts for the teen population and ensures that youth voices are heard in the arts and culture sector. At STAMP’s heart is the Teen Council, a group of 10 high school students who steer the program and shape how the city’s arts and culture institutions communicate with and appeal to young people, especially those in Philadelphia’s underserved communities. Over the past few years, Teen Council members have recognized an opportunity to use their roles as young leaders to enact positive social change and demonstrate how arts and culture can serve as a vehicle for civic engagement.


For the past nine months, I have been organizing on a local, state and national level. Let me take you back to the beginning: I started organizing in February of this year when I got an interesting email about the first Global Climate Strike inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

I quickly got on a call with the Pennsylvania State Lead Organizer, Abbie La Porta, a senior at State College High School. She explained to me what this movement was about, why striking was important, and gave me the resources to start organizing. 

Weeks later, I organized my first Global Climate Strike in the city of Philadelphia, where I currently live, on March 15, 2019. To my surprise, there were almost 800 people who attended the strike at City Hall. A few weeks later, I was promoted to become the Pennsylvania State Lead Organizer. From that moment on, I have organized five strikes in Philadelphia and helped empower my peers across the state to organize in their local cities as well. 

My passion for organizing continued this summer when I was selected as one of the delegates for the UN Youth Assembly, organized by the Friendship Ambassadors. For one week in August, I was one of 30 international delegates selected to go to Washington D.C. and New York City to advocate for international development and sustainability. During that time, I was able to work closely with officials from the United Nations, but I was also able to delegate with many international youth who were doing the same work I was doing, but in different countries. Through these experiences, I have learned a lot and they have helped me to mature into the person I am today.

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I have brought these perspectives and backgrounds into my work with the STAMP Teen Council.  The Teen Council is a group of 10 students who actively share and create activities and events at local museums in the city for teens. I got involved with the STAMP Council shortly after my freshman year of high school and quickly grew to love my involvement in the STAMP Teen Council, primarily because of its rich connection to creativity and bringing these cultural sites to teens for free. 

My background in social justice has connected with the Teen Council’s work on many levels. In our Know Before You Go videos, we focus on making sure that we give information to people with disabilities so that they feel comfortable in places that may be stigmatized for them. Additionally, the main objective of these videos is to make sure that everyone of every background, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or identity is comfortable at cultural institutions.

Another way the STAMP Teen Council has connected social justice and the arts was at the Arts & Culture Teen Summit organized by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance this past spring.Through the Teen Summit we were able to use specific artistic mediums like photography and video to address pressing issues in society.

Specifically, my working group  focused on the climate crisis and produced a video that looked at the intersection of climate justice and climate awareness. Other groups addressed important topics such as mental health, school violence, and public school funding. Through these projects and events, we have focused on social justice through many lenses and implemented them into our programming.

We have strong discussions of social justice in Teen Council every year. It may seem odd that an arts and culture organization is focused on social justice, but through our past, present, and future initiatives we make sure it is a focus.This year we are highlighting voting rights and voter registration as our advocacy topic, so we can educate teens on the importance of voting. We also plan on participating in Arts Advocacy Day in April, and meeting with Philadelphia City Council members to make sure our voices are heard and the arts are valued in city government. 

Using arts and culture as a platform for social justice should not just be done by the STAMP Teen Council, but by teens (and adults) everywhere.

It is so important for local artists of all mediums to spread these strong messages.

We hope people will learn from what we are doing and we look forward to seeing how others approach the artistic justice movement.

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Keep up with the STAMP Teen Council and their social justice and advocacy work by following the teen-run Instagram account @phillystamppass, and find more information about the STAMP program at www.phillystamppass.org

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