Using art as a broad stroke to promote social awareness

When Raissa Howera was growing up in the Washington area, she took part in protests supporting independence for Ukraine, the land of her father's family.

Such activism was typical, she said. Her adolescence was marked by frustration with the problems that trouble the world and a sense of helplessness to change it.


Now, as an art teacher at Oakland Mills Middle School in Columbia, Howera inspires students' creativity with social justice and outreach projects.

This year, her students are taking part in projects such as Empty Bowls, an anti-hunger initiative by the North Carolina-based nonprofit Imagine/RENDER Group. Students create and donate bowls throughout the year and will take part in an event where the bowls will be given to donors to the program. The effort benefits Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.


Empty Bowls is among several initiatives that have led the Howard County Arts Council to honor Howera with its Howie Award as an outstanding arts educator.

Howera is among three Howie Award recipients to be honored at the council's 17th annual Celebration of the Arts at Howard Community College in March. Toba Dobkin Barth was named 2013 Outstanding Community Supporter of the Arts for her work with the Candlelight Concert Society's Series for Children, for creating a volunteer program for the Columbia Festival of the Arts and other efforts. And the organization named folk, classical, jazz and Celtic performer Bruce Casteel as its 2013 Outstanding Artist.

Howera, 39, said her work with students is an extension of her upbringing.

"My parents taught me that if you didn't like something, you should work to change it," she said, noting that she hopes to empower students to harness creativity for individual artwork that can be used to make an impact globally and locally.

Last year, her students took part in a national social arts project sponsored by the New Mexico-based organization One Million Bones, which raises awareness to conflicts in such countries as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Burma.

Students crafted dozens of clay bones that were displayed on the National Mall in Washington; proceeds from the project went toward efforts to help victims of genocide.

Two years ago, Howera secured a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council allowing Oakland Mills Middle to host an artist-in-residence who created a mural with students. The mural is installed at the school's main entrance.

"I firmly believe that when you are in middle school it's a time that students become frustrated with their ability to make change, and they feel powerless," Howera said. "I wanted something for them to see that together, they can create something beautiful but also something that is going to be semi-permanent, last in the school, that everyone will be able to see right when they come in.


"I remember as a 12-year-old realizing all the injustices in the world. That was when it hit me. I remember being 12 and saying, 'Oh my gosh, there are all these people who are homeless, who are at war, who don't have anything to eat,' and just being overwhelmed by that," she said.

"We have many students who have that in their daily lives, let alone see that around them."

She said her childhood experiences drew her to a career in middle-school education, and she discovered that her students, like herself, don't need much prodding to get involved in art with social impact.

"I just sit down with the classes and I tell them, 'This is the project that I'm thinking of doing. These are the issues surrounding it. This is why we are doing this project,'" she said. "They're so passionate once they get that they're going to do something that's going to make a difference. I think giving them that example now is going to set them up for the future."

Howera "has that rare combination of being disciplined in her measures as a teacher, but also nurturing, encouraging, and always being positive with the students," said Aidan Hahn, an Oakland Mills Middle School French and ESOL teacher.

"I have worked with her for four years," Hahn said, "and I would love to be a student in her art classes."


Howera said her attention remains focused on Ukraine, which gained its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union but has dominated headlines recently since the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych after a week of fighting in the streets of Kiev, the nation's capital.

"I grew up going to many protests in front of the Soviet Embassy — hoping that Ukraine would be free from the Soviet Union one day. It's strange how things come full circle," Howera said. "I recently took one of my own children to D.C. to protest in support of Ukraine again."