ADL, Blanton Address Social Justice Through Art

ADL, Blanton Address Social Justice Through Art

Students participate in Doing Social Justice at the Blanton with paintings from Vincent Valdez’s series “The Strangest Fruit."

By Yael Brown

After collaborating for more than a year, the Anti-Defamation League Austin and the Blanton Museum of Art formed a new educational experience to explore social justice. The partnership has impacted 3,000 students to date.

The program, Doing Social Justice, explores issues of race and racism in our society through art using artworks like Vincent Valdez’s “The City.” ADL and the Blanton’s education department developed the Doing Social Justice curriculum collaboratively to combine the worlds of art education and anti-bias education. Jillian Bontke, ADL Austin education director, explained that many organizations were involved in developing this program, and specifically with the reveal of Valdez’s painting.

“AISD’s Office of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Anti-Defamation League staff, and the Blanton’s education team have worked collaboratively to introduce Vincent Valdez's ‘The City’ as a teaching tool. We sought the help of social emotional learning experts, AISD’s ethnic studies team, and community leadership from Austin Justice Coalition to explore ‘The City’ with high school students,” Bontke said.

The Valdez piece specifically carries significance because of its subject matter, the Klu Klux Klan, and therefore is the main subject of ADL’s lesson plan, Using Art to Explore Injustice and Social Justice. ADL director of curriculum, Jinnie Spiegler, wrote the lesson plan after viewing the painting in Austin last spring.

“When I first saw ‘The City’ as well as the other pieces of art, I knew that they would provide amazing teaching opportunities for young people to reflect on and discuss bias, racism and injustice,” said Spiegler. “Working with the Blanton has been incredible because they have similar goals as us: to be a catalyst and inspiration for young people to challenge injustice in their world and society at large.”

Not only does the lesson plan explore themes and messages from “The City,” but also explores other forms of social commentary on race in other artworks.

“The Blanton’s thoughtful efforts to use art as a medium to encourage community dialogue about injustice, to inspire activism and to promote empathic understanding is demonstrated through its Doing Social Justice school visits. During this past academic year alone, more than 3,000 sixth through twelfth graders visited the Blanton to engage in conversations about bias, race and membership, immigration, mental health and being an ally,” said Bontke.

Sabrina Phillips, museum educator, school and teacher programs at the Blanton, added, “When we’re teaching Doing Social Justice in the galleries, the art acts as a buffer, which creates a safe space to discuss difficult topics like race and privilege. We’re hoping to teach educators and students that empathy is a learned skill, and that individuals can hone that skill.”

In September, some of ADL’s Regional Board members participated in the program at the Blanton. “Participating in the Doing Social Justice program was eye opening for me,” said board member Sherrie Frachtman.

“Despite viewing paintings from diverse artists with very different perspectives, I was able to personally relate and empathize with the artists’ stories. It’s quite a unique program, combining both the Blanton and ADL’s missions and values of equity and learning. I’m so glad that so many students have had the chance to experience it,” she said.

Bontke said of the Vincent Valdez painting, “We believe this piece has the power to inspire a new generation of students who understand difference from many perspectives and will work toward building a more equitable world.” The partnership hopes to continue exploring these difficult topics through other pieces of art in the Blanton’s collections.

ADL’s lesson plan and other educational resources are available on ADL’s website,, in the education section. Additional museum resources are available at the Blanton’s website, ■

For more information on Valdez’s “The City,” visit

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