In December 2010, as protestors were swelling the plazas and thoroughfares of Tunisia to demand the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, artists there also took to the streets.
Demands of freedom were scrawled across walls from Matmata to Tunis with rattle cans and brushes. These messages were the backdrop to the movement that sparked the Arab Spring.
One year later, Bend local Jesse Roberts, creative director of area nonprofit Rise Up, bought a ticket to Tunisia to document those messages and the skate culture in Tunisia that helped to foster an environment where dreams of overthrowing the government became reality.
The result is the powerful film PUSH Tunisia, screened at BendFilm this year, but more than that, the trip became the foundation for Roberts' determination to teach street art to kids in the Middle East. His hope: that through art young people will become leaders and vocal advocates for change.
"That's where I started thinking, 'What do I want to do?' " said Roberts.
At the same time, his work was catching the eye of some big backers. Now he's got the U.S. Department of State behind him.
"Basically, they were like, do you want to coordinate more projects throughout the Middle East?" said Roberts.
The answer was yes.
On the dime of the State Department, in the last year Roberts has been back to Tunisia two more times, most recently, to Jordan and Palestine—where he arrived on the first day of the November conflict between Hamas and Israel.
After a morning flight, Roberts was just checking into his hotel when air raid sirens began blaring.
"I'm there the very first day of the conflict," said Roberts. "I literally got to the hotel and the first bomb went off."
He opened the door to his room and saw people rushing into the hallway. They headed to the conference rooms in the basement of the hotel, which doubled as bomb shelters.
Staying there wasn't an option given that the students he was there to work with were outside on soccer fields, in classrooms and in the community centers of Jordan and the West Bank.
It was in these places that he would spend the next week, working closely with a friend from Tunisia, Soudani Jawher, to teach kids to make giant murals, to make stencils and spray-paint walls, to practice screen printing and generally make art—something many of them said they had never done before.
"A lot of these places we went," said Roberts, "they don't have art in these schools. For a lot of them, it's like their first time painting. And these are, like, 12 and 13-year-olds."
These kids made the world seem small to Roberts. The boys made jokes and fooled around. The girls flirted with him and teased the boys.
The power of street art carries across the world, too.
For Jawher, who goes by Va-Jo and is from Southern Tunisia, graffiti is about people communicating with one another. He said he believes the work he and Roberts did with Palestinian kids will help them discover how to communicate differently with the world.
"I draw on the walls because graffiti is the only way for me to express myself and the way I feel," said Va-Jo.
BUT IT'S WEIRD
It's this power of graffiti to inspire that makes Roberts' work for the State Department seem to be a bit of a conundrum at first.
In one photo Roberts shared with the Source, he stands with several young people in front of a stenciled image of a man with a fist in the air. The words say "For Freedom, Rise Up."
But Roberts' work on behalf of the U.S. government with kids in Tunisia, Palestine and Jordan isn't about inspiring revolt, he said. It's about leadership development, education and learning how to communicate in nonviolent ways.
Still, street art has the power to inflame, as Roberts and Va-Jo said it did in Tunisia.
To learn more about what the U.S. government is trying to get at by funding these art workshops we got in touch with Rachel Leslie, cultural affairs officer for the American Consulate General in Jerusalem, a proponent of Roberts' work in the region.
She requested that we email our questions. Her answers were then vetted by the State Department back in D.C., she said. Naturally, what we received back was very polished and diplomatic-sounding. Still, we got the gist.
"Programs like Jesse's are incredibly important because they connect Americans with Palestinians," she wrote. "Often they help counter misperceptions about the U.S. and about American culture, and create positive impressions about Americans, our society, and our values."
For Roberts, receiving this government funding to teach Palestinians to communicate messages about their feelings has been strange and has prompted questions in his own mind. Israel is just over the border from the walls he was painting, a prosperous nation that enjoys protection and support from the United States. But in Palestine and in Jordan, he saw refugee camps swollen with people living in terrible squalor.
"I've been all over the world," said Roberts. "I've never encountered anything like this. It is a military state. It just blew me away. In this day and age—it just blew me away."
Yet, there he was, in what he described as an "apartheid" situation stenciling Rise Up murals on the walls in Palestinian territory with the full support of the American government behind him.
Leslie rationalized the support for his work this way:
"Art has the potential to foster cooperation among disparate people and provide a means of self-expression," she wrote. "As Jesse's time in Jerusalem demonstrated, art can be used as a medium for positive messages, even in the midst of conflict."
For Roberts, those positive messages include telling the young people he met that their work can empower them, in a nonviolent way.
"There's a lot of talent out there," he said. "It's about trying to find creative leaders and bring them along."
And he's not done.
Roberts just submitted a grant application to the State Department.
If he gets it, he'll be back in the Middle East teaching art to Palestinian kids as early as May and doing his small part to raise us all up.What is Rise Up International?
Rise Up International is a Bend-based nonprofit that's been registered with the state of Oregon since 2005.
The mission of the group is to give people "a creative voice in their community through interactive art, cultural, music events, and workshops."
Since its founding by Jesse Roberts and a few others, the organization has distinguished itself amongst the many nonprofits in Bend by working internationally on education issues and teaching street art.
In 2006, Rise Up began funding a rural school program in India that mostly funds the education of about 250 children from the lowest caste in India, called Dalits, according to Rise Up's website.
The organization's very active blog describes what these kids might otherwise be doing.
"Typical jobs for poor children in India are collecting cow manure, collecting wood, working in brick factories, picking through trash for recyclables, hard agricultural labor, and other labor intensive jobs. Street children are also targets for sexual exploitation and human trafficking," according to the blog.
Another of the earliest missions of the organization was supporting a school in La Chureca, Nicaragua. Around 350 kids from preschool to sixth grade get an education, receive free lunches and get the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities. According to a blog post at Rise Up's website, the kids usually go to work immediately after sixth grade, some in the local dump. But in 2008, Rise Up began providing cash to help dozens of these kids go on to secondary education. A photo on the website shows the group of kids receiving these scholarships. Some kids look tough, others are smiling ear to ear. As with so many of Rise Ups projects, the kids will remind you of the kids from this town.
In Central Oregon, the group has worked to increase arts, humanities and music education. Earlier this year, Rise Up launched a program called ARTivism, which encourages people to be activists through art.
In recent years, Rise Up has moved into the Middle East by providing art workshops in Tunisia, Jordan, and in Palestinian-controlled areas. In 2011, the organization assisted in production of the film PUSH Tunisia, which was released earlier this year and screened at BendFilm.
On his trip to Tunisia to help make the film about skateboarding, art and democracy, Roberts also was instrumental in organizing an art show at a bombed-out home of former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali that overlooked the Mediterranean. News of the rally made the Guardian newspaper and a European-based Rolling Stone blog.
For the most part, the organization brings in funds through local concerts and the Roots music festival, through sales of Rise Up merchandise and through donations from private individuals. Tax documents show that no one at Rise Up receives a salary.