Karen Blessen and Diana O’Connor show a room full of middle-school girls the Target logo. All the girls immediately recognize it. They show them pictures of the Golden Arches and then a glass of Coca-Cola made to look so temptingly refreshing. How do these images make you feel? The women asked. What comes into your mind when you see them? “These things are created to make us buy into them,” says Blessen, an artist who helps run Today Marks the Beginning, a nonprofit that promotes peace and social justice through the arts. The lesson was part of the Influence Project, in which girls at the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School learn to identify the ways in which advertising and propaganda affect our thinking. Once they get that, the students use some of those same influential techniques for a good cause — peace. “We showed them peace symbol and the dove,” Blessen says. “These are the same kinds of branding and logos, but they trigger nonviolence in our brains.” Each girl made a poster related to peace. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. They were encouraged to take their art into the community, to ask businesses, schools, libraries, galleries and community centers to display their work. “Dallas has a high crime rate, and there are a lot of issues with violence in Dallas,” Blessen says. “And if we could have some influence, we could change that current.” So students took their art out to the world. With a parent or guardian, they approached community members and asked them to display their posters. “They were nervous about doing it. It’s not easy to put yourself out there like that,” Blessen says. And now dozens of the peace posters are on display all over Oak Cliff and the rest of Dallas. “More than any other project we’ve done, this one illustrates my hopes for the program as far as bringing in the conversation about nonviolence to children,” Blessen says. “But also to have them take it the extra steps and bring their message to the community makes it that much more powerful.”
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