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T-shirts, hoodies become canvases for stories of oppression in New Orleans

AFSC's New Orleans Peace Building and Conflict Transformation Project hosts the Third Annual Transforming Oppression Fashion Show.

Young models, performers, artists, and community members gathered at the Christian Unity Church in New Orleans for the third annual Transforming Oppression Fashion Show on Nov. 26, 2013. This year’s show focused on three themes: Vortex of Violence, Lost Generation, and Living Wage.

Peace by Piece, a project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in New Orleans, invited young people to participate in the fashion show, asking participants to transform a white T-shirt to tell a story about how social issues such as violence, poverty, and poor education impact their lives. The white T-shirt is a clothing item often targeted by authority figures because of its popularity among young African-Americans who don the casual apparel as a simple fashion statement. 

Designers adorned their shirts with illustrations reflective of this year’s themes. Models used their designs to demonstrate the connections between poverty, violence, and the untimely deaths of their peers. Participants attended a workshop where they got a crash course in oppression and its manifestations. They envisioned translating their experiences with violence, loss of young lives, and lack of employment opportunities into powerful images to be displayed on clothing for the show.

For the first time this year, hoodies were added to the fashion show. The same concept applied: transform the hoodies to tell stories of injustice and oppression. After the death of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie became emblematic of the profiling and violence consistently encountered by the black community, particularly black youth.

New Orleans, like many major cities, has its own catalog of victims whose young lives have been lost to violence.

“I’m a young man who is constantly confronted by issues of poverty and violence,” explains Kendall Santacruze, an intern with AFSC who participated in the fashion show. “I chose to use all three themes for my design because I wanted to make a statement about what I’m experiencing financially, socially, and emotionally.” The show raises awareness of such violence and allows young people to creatively frame their stories using fashion and art. 

The fashion show has become a staple of the New Orleans Peace and Conflict Transformation Project, and is part of a larger effort to address the extraordinary levels of crime that consume youth culture.

In 2014, Peace by Piece will produce an anecdotal log that chronicles the murders of people under age 24 in New Orleans. The log will be used as a tool to raise awareness and engage youth, families, activists, and school and city officials in solution-based dialogue that addresses alternatives to violence—all part of the program’s goal to reduce the murder rate. Peace by Piece will continue to produce its annual fashion show to give young people a platform to design their own freedom.