Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Lily Yeh

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Lily Yeh
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“When I see brokenness, poverty and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. We are creating an art form that comes from the heart and reflects the pain and sorrow of people's lives. It also expresses joy, beauty, and love. This process lays the foundation of building a genuine community in which people are reconnected with their families, sustained by meaningful work, nurtured by the care of each other and will together raise and educate their children. Then we witness social change in action.”
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Lily Yeh
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99 of 100
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Artist, Social Pioneer (1941—  )

In 1986, Lily Yeh was asked by the dancer and educator Arthur Hall to create a park in an abandoned lot next to his building in North Philadelphia. With a small grant, a few shovels, and little else, Lily invited children and adults in this ravaged inner city neighborhood to join her in clearing the rubble-filled lot. They then transformed the lot into an art park with brilliant mosaics and sculpted trees, creating an oasis of safety and peace.

The park blossomed into The Village of Arts and Humanities, a community-based art organization that Lily co-founded in 1989. Lily, neighborhood residents, and staff have transformed more than 120 abandoned lots into gardens and parks. They also have renovated abandoned homes, and created educational programs, art workshops, after-school programs, a youth theater, and joyful community celebrations. Today, the Village of Arts and Humanities serves thousands of low-income people every year.

Lily's vision has rippled out far beyond North Philadelphia's borders. She inspires and collaborates with prison inmates to create beauty and art, and does the same with thousands of adults and children who live in some of the world's most broken communities. She has collaborated with residents of the Korogocho slum near Nairobi to transform a barren churchyard with murals and sculptures and traveled to Ghana, Ecuador, The Ivory Coast and the Republic of Georgia to work on similar projects. Her most endeavor is the Rwanda Healing Project, in which she worked with hundreds of children and families to transform their bleak village into a place of beauty and joy.

Born in China, Lily emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s to attend the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate school of Fine Arts. A successful painter and professor at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Lily traveled to Beijing in 1989 to show her work at the Central Institute of Fine Art. There, she witnessed the tragic events of Tianamen Square. Over the 1980s, Lily gradually realized that being an artist “is not just about making art … It is about delivering the vision one is given … and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.” She continues pursuing her vision through her new organization, Barefoot Artists, Inc., which teaches residents and artists how to replicate the Village model in devastated communities around the world.

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.
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Americans Who Tell the Truth ::

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