All Classical Radio James Depreist

That spark of inspiration: Social Justice & the Arts at Portland State University

A new degree program at PSU by Darrell Grant and Suzanne Savaria will be the only one of its kind in the country.


Julana Torres & Colora with Carmelo Torres. Photo by Jordan Henline courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.
Julana Torres & Colora with Carmelo Torres. Photo by Jordan Henline courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.

In 2016, when Darrell Grant and Suzanne Savaria started talking about a different approach to teaching music at Portland State University, they couldn’t have predicted the outcome.

But gradually, from those conversations a vision emerged.

“What if we trained students in music as social engagement as well as in musical skills?” they thought. “What if we made it a priority to cultivate their sense of art as a force for social change?” And so they developed the Artist as Citizen Initiative as a means to explore those questions. As time passed, they talked with faculty and administrators, developed courses, and gained experience with students.

The Art of Learning

Finally, after eight years, their work came to fruition: the PSU Board of Trustees approved the Social Justice and the Arts degree program this spring, offering a new opportunity for students and a potential boon for the community.

At first, it may be difficult to see why this program could impact more than a few students and teachers. But Social Justice and the Arts may become one of the definitive educational models for a university whose motto is “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” At the least, it appears well-suited for this city and this time.

Indeed, Dr. Amanda Singer, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and a member of the program faculty, sees it as an ideal fit. ”It’s really unique to who we are as a campus with our emphasis on community engagement,” she says, “to who we are as a city with a reputation for activism, creativity, and change, and as a possibility.” 

Amanda Singer. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Amanda Singer. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

That possibility — using the arts to effect social change — is key to the program’s mission.


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Social justice as a practice and a field of study has become a powerful force on campuses across the country. At PSU, Dr. Coty Raven Morris, Assistant Professor of Music and Social Justice, recently created a street choir for the homeless. The Schnitzer School of Art + Art History + Design hosts an MFA program in Art and Social Practice. There’s also an “Arts Serve the City” internship program that places students in arts and culture organizations that advocate for diversity and inclusion or serve at-risk or marginalized groups.

“There are minors, there are certificates … there are tons of courses at lots of schools,” says Professor Grant, a celebrated pianist and composer who conducted an extensive search for models. “But there are no other degree programs like this that are interdisciplinary and arts-based.”

Something Out of Nothing

Grant and Savaria believe their new program will “gather those students who care deeply and passionately about changing the world,” as Grant puts it. And then help them use the tools of the artist to work toward that goal. “Why can’t artists author change in the world?” he asks. “Why let politicians do it? Why not us?” And how might the university help students discover and employ that agency?

The program they designed to answer that question is the result of Grant “wrangling a bunch of people together,” as he says, and, with his colleagues, “making something out of nothing.” It involved outreach to the community, thanks to the many partnerships Savaria (a piano instructor) engineered, and within the university, to faculty, students and administrators. 

Suzanne Savaria. Photo by Annie Savaria-Watson.
Suzanne Savaria. Photo by Annie Savaria-Watson.

Their first step was “to create courses that cultivate students’ sense for art as a force for change,” encourage them to “reflect on their sense of purpose,” and provide them “tools to learn, adapt and respond to the issues that impact their lives.” Those courses would become the backbone of the new degree program. Then they initiated partnerships with Portland Public Schools and community organizations so students would have hands-on opportunities.


At Vestal Elementary, the classrooms are buzzing with preparations for Social Justice Night, just two days away. Located off Northeast 82nd Avenue and Glisan Street, Vestal is Portland Public Schools’ social justice magnet and the site of an annual celebration of student projects that reflect that mission. Parents and community members will attend to view student work and a performance by this year’s artist in residence, Julana Torres and her band Colorá with Carmelo Torres, who has been working with fifth-grade music classes during spring term. 

Julana Torres & Colora with Carmelo Torres. Photo by Jordan Henline courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.
Julana Torres & Colorá with Carmelo Torres. Photo by Jordan Henline courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.

That residency is the result of a partnership among Vestal, the Artist as Citizen Initiative, and Montavilla Jazz, a neighborhood organization that stages an annual festival featuring area talent in a multi-venue, three-day event (scheduled this year for August 30-September 1). Together, they received a Metro Placemaking grant that helped support Social Justice Night activities, including vouchers for food carts across the street from the school as well as the Artist Residency.


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While last year’s artists in residence worked with the Vestal students, Savaria’s students “came into the classroom, took notes, and created their own projects that support the work we’re doing,” says Neil Mattson, Executive Director of Montavilla Jazz. One example is the “Vestal Storytelling Project,” a podcast with interviews of people involved in social justice activities conducted by PSU Capstone students in 2023.

Meanwhile, this spring PSU students in Savaria’s Engage in Art Activism class (a Senior Capstone, service learning-based course) are finishing their projects, including an instructional video teaching salsa dance. 

“When my students joined the class,” explains Savaria, “I asked, ‘Who are you? What do you like to do? What can you bring?’ And one said he was a dancer, that he’d worked with kids before, and he wanted to make a video, but he didn’t know how. Another student said, ‘I do,’ and so they filmed the Vestal students learning how to dance to salsa music.

“When we showed the video, two fifth graders got up and did some of the moves along with it,” says Savaria. “My goal is that some of those fifth graders will be brave enough to get up there when the Torres family performs live and do some of those moves.”

Julana Torres in Vestal classroom. Photo by by Neil Mattson courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.
Julana Torres in Vestal classroom. Photo by by Neil Mattson courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.
Carmelo Torres in Vestal classroom. Photo by by Neil Mattson courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.
Carmelo Torres in Vestal classroom. Photo by Neil Mattson courtesy of Montavilla Jazz, all rights reserved.

To a college student who wants to change the world, that may not seem like much. Savaria understands. “It’s really easy to ask yourself, ‘How am I making any difference if I’m working with two fifth graders who get up and dance at an assembly?’” she asks. “But if you’re part of something like this for ten weeks, you realize that a little impact goes a long way. And my students gain perspective by going through the process and realizing, ‘I did it; maybe I can do it again.’”

She also set up a partnership with the Jordon Schnitzer Foundation, in which the Foundation donates $25,000 every fall term to Savaria’s “Grantmaking for Arts and Culture” class for distribution to arts and culture organizations. “It’s all student-led,” she says. “We develop a mission statement, put out invitations to apply, and talk a lot about trust-based philanthropy and what it means to address biases and understand who we are funding. Then we interview our finalists and fund them.”

 Social justice may seem an abstract concept. But not to a second grader. “Social means the whole community,” the student said, as Vestal Principal Sabrina Flamoe tells it. “And Justice means help anybody who needs it.”


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Meanwhile, back in the Academy

Grant is optimistic about the program. First, because it offers the opportunity for collaboration and interdisciplinary studies that many faculty and students crave. And perhaps most important, because those teaching social justice courses as well as people outside academia understand the importance of the arts to business, public service, and many other fields. “They see the ability of the arts to inspire people, the ability of the arts to tell stories,” he says. “And all of humanity is driven by storytelling.”

Singer agrees. She’s been teaching “Conflict Resolution: Story-telling for Social Justice,” for 15 years. “Art invites us into a new way of seeing what’s possible,” she says, “so that we can engage in — not just activism — but imaginative change.”

And Grant believes that helping students see those possibilities will fill a need for the community. “The world has looked to artists to encourage us to keep going during and after the pandemic, to help us figure out how to deal with social discord and divisions,” he says. “One of our goals would be to help our students see how their creativity and artistry can contribute.”

They’ve already found ways to make that happen beyond their work with public schools.

“We partnered with the College of Urban and Public Affairs,” recalls Grant. “They got some money to do street activations, but they didn’t have the mechanism for students to do art to activate the spaces. So we brought our students in.”

But a step toward social justice, they discovered, might be simply creating spaces where people with differing views can talk about them. In one case, anyway, art turned out to be a means to create that sense of safety.

“Monday in class,” says Savaria, “we read a play about a pastor who loses his belief in Hell, and therefore in Heaven, and as a result loses his congregation and his wife. I asked them to make a creative response that addressed either power dynamics or identity. Most of them are not art students, but one student sang a song, one wrote a piece of music, one a screenplay, one designed a sweatshirt. We had an array of presentations.” 


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Those responses were not the goal, however; they were the means to a different outcome.

“This class is so diverse in terms of race and gender and belief systems,” Savaria says, “and religion is a very hard thing to talk about. But there was so much tolerance for differing points of view. The key was asking them for a creative response. They liked the art piece because it gave them a chance to explore how they felt. And it gave them a way to share that felt safe.”

On the Street

Safety is one of Grant’s concerns, too. But it’s one thing to create a safe space in a classroom; it’s quite different on the street.

In the course “Social Justice Movements, Artistic Responses, and Impact,” students study social justice actions and the artistic responses that came out of them. Once they’ve been inspired by those historical precedents, however, what next?

“How keep them safe?” Grant wonders. “How give them a sense of what they can do and the ramifications? We’re going to have to have a conversation about civil disobedience, freedom of speech, and what happens to people when they stand up for activist causes. What are the lines around responsible discourse and incitement to violence? We can’t assume they know this.”

Ironically, several days after we spoke, students and others began rallying against the war in Gaza, and on May 27, protesters broke into and occupied PSU’s Millar Library, where they remained until June 2, when Portland police removed and arrested those who had not fled. 

Before that, Grant and Singer visited the library “to see if there was anyone to talk to about social justice and the arts,” recalls Singer. “But they were in a very reactive place. I didn’t have the sense that many of them were students [news reports indicated that, of 30 protestors arrested in the Library, only four were PSU students]. You think of student protest as an opportunity to engage in dialogue, but that wasn’t the tenor of what was going on there. My sense was that people were desperate to get on the bandwagon to vent their rage,” Singer says. 


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

And that’s where the new degree program may offer “a better bandwagon,” she believes, whose goal is to “offer constructive and creative ways to give voice to the change that’s necessary.”

At a time “when we have so many systems breaking down and so little hope that the future is going to promise anything better, we need mechanisms to build hope,” Singer says. “And that’s what the arts promise.”

The Way Forward

As the program rolls out in Fall of 2024, however, much remains to be done.

First, there’s the difficult work of designing courses that combine instruction in social responsibility and subject matter. “That’s the constant battle,” says Grant: “how much time to take away from the subject matter to focus on experiential learning.”

And there are institutional obstacles as well.

“From the first they heard about it, the President and the Provost said, ‘This is great; we’re all about interdisciplinary.’ But the challenge is that the system is not supportive of that because of the silos of academia,” explains Grant. “The faculty are dying for it — ‘I’d love to co-teach, I’d love to collaborate across disciplines.’” Unfortunately, money often gets in the way. “I’m curious to see how far we will take this collaborative approach to curriculum,” he adds.

And, like any program, the biggest challenge is to fill it with students.


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“We got permission for the degree with the idea that we’re not cannibalizing programs that are already here; that we’re drawing new students who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the university,” says Grant.

Singer also hopes the program will engage those who otherwise might not find a place for themselves in higher education. But she realizes that may mean attracting students who no longer feel inspired by the discipline they have chosen. “Young people especially need that spark of inspiration,” she says. “That’s what the core classes do — orient students to what’s possible, then set them on their path to find their own individual expression as well as the collective expression of community work.”

Will it work? Tune in next year. The program rolls out fall term, 2024 — at what may be a particularly critical time for social justice in America.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lynn Darroch has written about jazz and other music as well as producing general arts features for The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Jazz Times and other magazines and newspapers. His book, Rhythm in the Rain - Jazz in the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, Portland State University, 2015) covers jazz in the region - and how it was shaped by social, economic and geographical conditions.

His work on jazz also appears in books such as The Encyclopedia of United States Popular Culture (Popular Press) and Jumptown: The Golden Age of Jazz in Portland (Oregon State University Press). He edited the Jazz Society of Oregon's monthly, Jazzscene, for seven years.

Darroch also edited the book Between Fire and Love: Contemporary Peruvian Writing, has contributed articles to the Oregon Encyclopedia Project on Oregon artists, and he hosts a weekly show on KMHD 89.1 FM. He was on the faculty at Mt. Hood Community College, 1989-2007.


2 Responses

  1. As a member in our arts community which includes Jazz radio host on KBOO Community Radio, former PDX Jazz Education Chair-Community Engagement and emcee for 8 years, it was a joy and a privilege to provide the voiceover for the Vestal Storytelling Project Podcast. I currently serve as Vice President on the Montavilla Jazz Festival Board. This article is a must-read for all who support our arts community on any level.

  2. While I’m impressed with the aims of this program, I’m wondering why there is no mention of or connection with the amazing and current work of Coty Raven-Morris, Hinckley Asst. Prof. of Choir, Music Eduction and Social Justice. The PSU catalog describes her as “the Professor of Choir, Music Education, and Social Justice….[she] is also the Founder of Being Human Together (BHT), a budding music education community striving to normalize difficult topics in our field through conversation and connection. I certainly hope they will be working in sync to build and benefit from one another.

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