Evanston organization Shanti teaches peace through art

Grace Johnson

Growing up in India and being taught by her mother, who worked with Mother Teresa, Indira Freitas Johnson quickly learned to help others.

After Johnson immigrated to the United States with Mother Teresa’s help, she came to Evanston, where she founded the Shanti Foundation for Peace, 917 Fowler Ave., in 1993.

“In 1993, there were wars taking place all over the world,” said Johnson, who is also co-executive director of the foundation. “It just seemed like the intensity of violence was crueler than it used to be.”

The Shanti Foundation started out as an organization that raised money for other small grassroots organizations through greeting cards that featured quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and others, Johnson said.

Eventually, Shanti started its own programs.

“The basis of the organization is the idea that the processes of art-making and non-violent decision-making are similar,” Johnson said.

Shanti’s first project drew inspiration from drawings of fourth- and fifth-graders to paint a CTA bus in order to spread messages of peace, Johnson said. This initial project led to workshops in Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools as well as after-school programs.

Co-Executive Director Gerry Garner said he believes the children benefit immensely from Shanti’s programs.

“They learn a new way of communicating with each other,” she said. “Especially when we work with children in younger grades, they gain awareness that they can use different approaches to communication to advance their ideas.”

Shanti sub-contracts with artists to run programs, using art as a teaching tool to bring up issues of peaceful interaction with others, Johnson said.

“Shanti doesn’t always get brought in because of a conflict,” said Monika Neuland-Kimrey, a Shanti artist. “They also are brought in to examine social situations.”

Neuland-Kimrey said she likes to talk to administrators and teachers first to get a “bird’s eye view” of the situation, before she formulates exact projects which allow children to work together.

“In communities where there are problems, when you look deeper, you see that people don’t often have a chance to create together,” she said. “When there’s creativity in groups, different dialogues come into play and it makes a significant impact as conversations start.”

Sometimes artists must use their training to get all of the students to open up. Garner recalled a time when a junior high school student wasn’t interested and wanted to go home until the artist started discussing spoken word and writing poetry. The student lit up and suddenly had plenty of ideas to contribute, she said.

“All of our artwork is collaborative,” Garner said. “The artwork that the Shanti programs produce are made by a group, so there are a lot of different mediums utilized.”

The group approach helps Neuland-Kimrey feel connected to the community.

“I’m a teaching artist that does community development work,” she said. “I feel like the most important thing is to do projects that allow people to participate and feel like part of the creation, rather than just consume it.”

Neuland-Kimrey is currently following a group of students for the second year in a row, so she has been able to see the progress the students have made.

“I know what I learned from these students last year, and it’s great to come back and see how they’ve grown and matured,” she said.

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