The Arlington COVID Quilt

Background

 

The blocks in this quilt describe the impact of the pandemic on nine students at the Wakefield High School in Arlington Virginia.  All nine are members of the Girl Up chapter at Wakefield.

The project began in late 2019, when we put the Wakefield students in touch with the girls in Zimbabwe who are making Clean Girl soap under the direction of our partner in Zimbabwe, Women Advocacy Project. The Girl Up coordinator at the time, Claire Brophy, made a short video about Wakefield which she shared with Evelyn Sachiti, who heads the soap-making team in Chitungwiza, Harare. After visiting Zimbabwe in late 2019 we made a second video about Evelyn and her team. Evelyn and Claire became close friends and exchanged emails.

Our hope had been that this would lead to active collaboration and the Wakefield students even expressed interest in making their own Clean Girl soap in the US, with profits going to the girls in Zimbabwe. We had a soap trainer lined up. Then the pandemic broke. Instead of giving up the two groups decided to use embroidery to describe their experience of COVID-19. The Zimbabwe girls completed their squares in the fall.

We also commissioned squares from women who lost their fathers during the conflict in Nepal and have turned stitching into a fine art.

The three sets of squares offer a fascinating contrast in style and subject matter.  Of the three countries – Nepal, Zimbabwe and the US – the US has suffered by far the most deaths and sickness. But it is the squares from Zimbabwe that offer the bleakest images, about the government efforts to enforce the lock-down. The squares from Nepal are more reflective, and dwell on the separation and isolation caused by COVID-19. This has been devastating in a society built around the community and families.

The Wakefield squares offer the perfect complement. They too dwell on separation and isolation, but the stress is less apparent than in Nepal. Some designs are certainly poignant. Kate uses her square (above) to express the discomfort she feels being around other people in crowded places like the grocery store. Anne’s square describes how she depends on running to “keep her sane” but notes sadly that running has also become very lonely. Stephanie thinks about her father in Nigeria, missing his family in the US and deeply anxious about the scary reports coming from the US.

But another less strained theme emerges from the Wakefield squares. Being freed from the hustle and bustle of school and social pressures has enabled the nine artists to reflect about the things that really matter, like their families, their friends and even historic developments like the Black Lives Matter movement. Occasionally, there is regret, as when Ainsley realizes she will be deprived of a homecoming by the pandemic. But the artists understand that others have it far worse. Without exception, they count their blessings and express compassion for others who are less well off.

The three sets of COVID squares are also a reminder of the therapeutic power of stitching. All twenty-four artists in the three countries helped each other through the dark days of isolation and pushed each other to be creative. Sofia speaks for many when she writes: “The project has been calming for me.”

The girls in Zimbabwe and Nepal learned to stitch while working on previous quilt projects with AP, but this was the first time for most of the Wakefield artists. It started on a good-humored note with some online training from Bobbi Fitzsimmons, a well-known quilter and member of the AP Board. Bobbi is deeply impressed by the quality of the Wakefield squares that have emerged.

The artists are also delighted with the result so far. Stephanie says: “I’m proud of myself! I never thought I could do this.” Stephanie  credits the project with introducing her to new friends in the US and expanding her knowledge of Africa. She was born in Nigeria and brought up in the US, giving her a unique multicultural perspective. By introducing her to Evelyn in Zimbabwe, the COVID quilt project has given Stephanie a new friend and a deeper understanding of the continent she came from.

Abby Stuckrath helped the Wakefield artists explain their designs through wonderful podcasts.

Abby Stuckrath, a student at American University who volunteered at AP over the Fall, interviewed the Wakefield artists about their squares and posted them as podcasts on her blogging page. This is the first time we have added audio to our quilt pages and it will hopefully not be the last. Abby’s fine interviews are another example of the way quilting can offer talented people a creative outlet.

The blocks were assembled into a finished quilt by Beth Suddaby, a well-known quilter in Nrothern Virginia who led the team that assembled the River Gypsy quilt from Bangladesh, one of the best designed advocacy quilts ever made.

This project quickly attracted attention. Two of the artists, Layla and Stephanie, were featured with Beth on the local television news. The artists will unveil their quilt at an exhibition in Wilmington and hope to show it at their school, and at vaccination centers. They have also developed a strong bond with the Zimbabwe girls who worked on their own COVID  blocks. The two groups meet by Zoom every Saturday to discuss everything from jewelry to food.

AP is proud to have supported such a creative initiative at such a difficult time. Telling our story is a form of resistance and empowerment in the face of crisis. (March 25, 2020).

Email Layla (Lkherbouch@gmail.com) and Stephanie (stef_achugs@icloud.com) for more information. Our thanks to Humanity United for supporting this project. (January 1, 2021)

Artists and blocks

 

Cyber-Friends by Sofia Reecer

Sofia’s square shows her keeping in touch with her friends by Facetime during the pandemic: “In normal times I like to spend as much time as possible with my friends. They’re like an extension of my family to me.

“My square (shows) my house as really small. I am inside holding a phone. Above – connected by a lightening bolt of electricity to represent technology – is a close-up of my phone screen. I’m Facetiming with friends. I do have a few friends who live far away in other states. It’s been interesting to see how long-distance friendships and those closer to home have been put on the same level.”

The pandemic has changed Sofia and her community. “I think I’ve probably got a little less dramatic and learned that things that seemed initially daunting are not quite as bad as they seem. I’ve probably become a little more resilient.” The pandemic has also bought Sofia’s community together: “There’s a woman up the street who organizes a food drive. Her house is a drop-off site for donations. It’s really cool to see people participating and coming together like that.”

Sofia has enjoyed the embroidery project. “It was really calming for me. I’d never tried it before. I really liked this project. That was a kind of new entry-point. It really opened up for me.”

Working with the Zimbabwe girls, and seeing their strong designs, has helped Sofia put her own challenges into perspective.  “A teenage girl in America not being able to Facetime her friends. It would be easy to get down about that, but then it’s also important to realize there are other things going on the world and even in my community as well. You realize that there other things going on that are bigger than you, I guess.”

“The embroidery project was really calming for me”

Listen to Sofia’s podcast interview

 

 

Community by Layla Kherbouch

Layla’s square is about the importance of giving. The hands on the right are passing over a box of canned food to a second set of hands.

Layla – one of two project coordinators – has been particularly upset by the financial insecurity and instability caused by the pandemic. She herself was laid off from her part-time job at a local pizza restaurant, but considers herself remarkably fortunate compared to others: “My parents were able to stay in their jobs and we were able to stay in our house. We felt really fortunate and just wanted to help out other members of the community who were not as lucky.”

The family signed up for a local initiative to make snack packs for kids and went to Costco to stock up on popcorn, Goldfish, raisins, nuts and healthy snacks: “We would donate whatever we could – canned food, meals, snacks – that not only help with food security but also maintain that sense of community that is very strong in Arlington. We wanted to make sure that in that time of isolation there is someone who wants to help out.”

They put the packs together while watching TV and doing other family things. Some people worry that it takes too much time and effort to be charitable, but that’s not so says Layla: “It’s not that hard to incorporate (giving) into your life-style. I just want people to understand the importance of giving back and putting your experience into the context of the world and other issues that may be impacting people on a deeper level.”

“We wanted to make sure that in a time of isolation there is someone who wants to help out.”

Listen to Layla’s podcast interview

 

 

Escape by Elena Cura

Elena’s square describes a wonderful camping trip she took with a friend early on in the pandemic: “I love camping and hiking but I almost never get an opportunity to do it. I was supposed to travel with my family. Instead I went to a lake in upstate New York and spent a month and a half with a friend.

“It was the most beautiful camp I’ve ever been to. It was surrounded by water. We went cliff jumping, swimming, and canoeing. We swam over to Blueberry island and tried to survive on our own for a day. It was fun. We tried to make fishing hooks and be creative.”

Elena’s takeaway from the trip is simple: ““There’s always a way to get outside and the rewards are definitely worth the effort. You feel so good. It’s a whole other level of well being. It will carry me throughout the year, especially when school gets hard.”

Like other members of the team, Elena has learned about herself during the pandemic. “I’m much more introverted than I thought. It’s been really cool to separate myself from social influences at school and develop my own personality without being surrounded by other people. I’m sleeping more – that’s very satisfying!”

Elena also feels that the pandemic has brought her family together. “Its allowed my family to create a system and routine that was lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life – something that will be helpful even when life returns to normal.”

Elena is grateful to the embroidery project for giving the Wakefield team a way to share their ideas and understand what the Zimbabwe girls are going through. “More and more – especially in the US – we’re seeing that our lives are more polarized. We’re less open to hearing other peoples’ perspective. This was a great opportunity to highlight a different perspective and also show that it’s still possible to bond with people during a pandemic.”

In the end, however, she’ll mostly remember the time alone. “It’s important to have time by yourself. You’re  only going to be with one person your entire life and that’s yourself. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”

“There’s always a way to get outside.”

Listen to Elena’s podcast interview

 

 

Separation by Stephanie Achugamonu

Stephanie’s square shows her father in Nigeria and his wife and children in the US, both missing each other. Her father was due to visit in December but put off his trip to the US to attend the graduation of Stephanie’s sister, which was due to take place this past summer. Then travel became impossible and she has not seen him for a year: 

“After COVID, the distance between us has felt larger. That’s what I tried to capture in my square. Hopefully people can identify with that and understand how much of a privilege it is to have your family in one space.”

Stephanie’s square also conveys some of the more complex emotions aroused by the pandemic, including blame. Her square shows her father anxious and frustrated because the US has handled the pandemic so badly: “My dad is seeing major headlines about 200,000 deaths and a lot of crazy statistics and he’s stressed out about the rest of his family. Where he lives the rates are not that terrible and their government did a lot to prevent COVID from expanding the way it has here in the US.”

Stephanie is a co-coordinator of the team and like the others she has learned a lot about herself through the embroidery project: “I’m proud of myself for taking this up! I’m not a risk taker and never would have imagined myself doing this.  I’m happy that I am. I’m connecting with so many other people, even people that go to my school that I’ve never really connected to before. We all have this shared interest – making the best quilt that we can and learning how to do it. I love it that we did a quilt, because people are captivated by images.”

The project has built friendships between the artists in Zimbabwe and the US and Stephanie feels particularly close to Evelyn, the girl ambassador in Chitungwiza, Harare. “It generally makes me happy when she responds! I’m like ‘you don’t have to!’ I love when she shares her interests and how she loves volleyball and music and hanging out with her friends. I’m like ‘that’s literally me!’

“Sometimes it’s so nice to see that we’re more alike than we think. At the same time we recognize the privileges that we have being here in the US versus the experience that she has being in Zimbabwe. It’s made me more appreciative and willing to learn more about other people and what they’re going through as opposed to just sitting around thinking about what’s affecting my in my personal life. Who would have thought people would live like that?”

Stephanie was born in Nigeria and has grown up in the US. She is proud of her multicultural background and feels it has given her an unusual perspective on the pandemic. “In 6th grade I started heading to Nigeria  to see my extended family. I have such an interest in international affairs and relationships.  I’ve seen the world through both of these lenses. Living in a developed country I see what opportunities I have that I would not have over there, but also problems I am facing that people over there might not have to face.  

“Sometimes when I go over there – I don’t blame them – they’re thinking ‘there’s an American walking in thinking that they know everything.’ I’m like ‘Oh, I’m interested in international affairs.’ They’re like ‘OK but what do you really know about this life? Are you just reading about it through text books?’ So in that way I’ve grown because I’ve seen more.

“Sometimes I’m in history class and I listen to something and it irks me a bit. I’m like ‘I don’t see it that way.’ Especially when they’re talking about the state of developing countries and what we can do to improve them a little. Some of them have lost faith in their government and don’t trust their government to actually give them the aid that the country overall is receiving, Things like that! Part of me will be ‘Ummmm!'”

Which is one reason why Stephanie has enjoyed working with The Advocacy Project. We are pleased to report that she thoroughly approves of our focus on investing directly in communities.

“I’m proud of taking this up and love it that we’re making a quilt because people are captivated by images.”

Listen to Stephanie’s podcast interview

 

 

The March by Natalie Manlove

Natalie’s square recalls her participation in the momentous Black Lives Matter march that took place in Washington near the start of the pandemic. The experience has made her more aware, more appreciative of diversity and more respectful of the opinions of others:

Me and a couple of my friends went down and marched to the White House. Everyone was so COVID-conscious, wearing masks and hesitant to get close to each other. This was the first time people had been out of their house for months. It showed their bravery.

“I’m so grateful I was able to participate. This is going to be in the books of our kids in years to come and I want to make sure that everyone knows how big of an impact this made on the world. I’ve always lived in Arlington but I haven’t used DC to get closer to politics. This was really empowering.

“I (also) educated my parents a lot about it. They were really interested in it getting a younger person’s view.  It brought my family closer together. I’m just so used to everything being diverse, I don’t quite understand people being opposed to that especially in America. I’m also happy that I had so much time to sit and think. It has helped me to open up my views to everyone else’s opinions.”

The embroidery project has given Natalie insights into life in Zimbabwe. “The girls in Zimbabwe have sent a couple of videos. That puts into perspective the amount of privilege that we have and also how different their experience of COVID has been. With us it’s like ‘Oh we’re stuck in the house and we want see our friends.’ It is so much bigger than that for them.

“It is so cool to have such a close relationship with them and get their first-hand take on everything. Our living situations are so different. I’m so grateful that we have such an outlet to hear their stories.”

“(The march) was the first time people were out of their house for months. It showed their bravery.”

Listen to Natalie’s podcast interview

 

 

Paranoia by Kate Lanman

Kate hates the fact that COVID-19 has made her afraid of other people. She is particularly anxious about going to grocery stores.

It started when she went on a beach break back in the spring and went into a store to buy sunglasses. “It was packed,” she recalls. “That’s when it hit me – I didn’t know what these people had been doing. I was zigzagging around people and had a small panic attack. It bothered me more than I thought it would.”

Kate is naturally gregarious and extroverted and she finds it hard to relate to people remotely “because I rely on being able to see someone and read body language.” She worries that it may take time to revert to her former self when the pandemic disappears.

At the same time the pandemic has given her a sense of perspective: “I’ve learned not to take things for granted like being able to see people and hug people. Maybe this is something I needed – a little wake up call – ‘Hey, these things that I could do before now are great!’ I miss them a lot even though I didn’t realize how happy I was in those moments.”

Partnering with the Zimbabwe girls has also helped Kate to understand that everyone is in the same boat: “We come from very different backgrounds but this is something we’re experiencing together. I think that is really cool. I mean it kind of sucks, but it’s bringing us together.”

The squares from Zimbabwe also make Kate understand how difficult life is for the Zimbabwe girls, even if the pandemic has hit the US much harder than Zimbabwe. “We also have to recognize that we are still a little privileged to be living here.”

“We have to recognize that we are still privileged to be living here.”

Listen to Kate’s podcast interview

 

 

Bubbled by Ann Kumashiro

Ann is a runner and she credits running with having saved her from being cooped up in the house during the pandemic. At the same time she feels very much alone when running: “The bubble represents the solitude I feel from not being with other people. I feel (as if I’m) running my own race all the time.”

This is not easy for a self-proclaimed “extreme extrovert.” Ann says: “I don’t function well when I’m alone all the time. One of my biggest fears is being alone.”

Ann’s friends have helped her to “stay sane” during the pandemic and the embroidery project has given her a way to stay in touch with some of her closest friends. When it came to learning, Kate had an advantage over the others because her aunt is a “hard core quilter.” But she learned new stitches and techniques: “It was kind of cool to make something with your own hands that represents something so big.”

Ann was also fascinated to see the designs of the others because they revealed their personalities and helped her to understand her friends better. “That’s so beautiful and cool. We’re all so different, especially at Wakefield because our (school) community is so diverse.”

Ann longs for the time when she can meet people again in person but fears that her “phobia” about large groups of people will last well after the pandemic ends. In the meantime, the embroidery project has given her a sense of solidarity and perspective, by reminding her that everyone is going through the same crisis: “It might feel that you’re alone in this and a silent sufferer. But we’re all in it together.”

She also knows that others have been far more badly affected: “I am upset by some of the things I have lost but I know my experience does not compare with people who have lost family members or a job.”

It is, she says, “super important” that the girls in Zimbabwe have also told their stories through squares because it allows her to compare her own experience with what they have gone through: “I think that’s really important to be aware of not only yourself but of other people, even those a world away.”

Ann can’t wait to see what the girls in Zimbabwe have done and what their squares look like: “I want to get to know them as people as well.”

“I feel as if I’m running my own race all the time.”

Listen to Ann’s podcast interview

 

 

Reflection by Ainsley Pollock

Ainsley’s square shows her trying to make sense of the pandemic.  “The lines coming out of my head are jumbled thoughts. They represent what I was going through, which was a crowded head kind of trying to figure things out.”

But the pandemic has also given Ainsley some time for quiet reflection. “It was very nice to have some time for introspection during a crucial time in my life, with the college selection process. Also it was in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement and I had a lot time to work through my thoughts on that. Obviously that’s a work in process but it was nice to have the time to sit and think what I need to be doing better.”

School has not been easy. “When they said we’re not going back to school for the rest of the year, it just kind of hit me.  It’s important for us to make the best of it but it’s definitely a lot more draining being on a screen for hours on end. It’s been a little difficult with college applications online and just being conscious all the time of who I have come in contact with and whether we sanitized things at home.”

Ainsley puts on a brave face about missing out on treasured High School traditions like the homecoming. ” I just need to rework my mindset into thinking I am making new memories that no-one else has had, even though I’d love to have a homecoming. Twenty years from now we’re going to look back on this and realize ‘Wow – we had a unique experience.'”

Ainsley has enjoyed the embroidery project, particularly as it has given her a perspective on Zimbabwe. “I’m not hearing about what’s happening outside the US. We don’t see how other countries are responding and are affected.  I’m very excited to see their squares.”

“Twenty years from now we’re going to look back on this and say ‘Wow, we had a unique experience.'”

Listen to Ainsley’s podcast interview

  

 

 

Fractured by Leah Aiken

Leah’s square shows her isolated from the world by COVID-19. She describes it as an “out of body experience” – so much so that she considered adding stars to her design. 

Leah was able to vote in the election for the first time and that made her feel engaged, but overall she will remember the pandemic for having been isolated in a fractured world. She has found the isolation intense:  “You cant do anything hands-on unless it is volunteering – but it’s still kind of risky. You can’t go on a plane and help people out. We can’t see who we want to see or travel. Even with a mask on and social distancing people are on edge. It will be like that for a long time.”

But for Leah the isolation has not been all bad. “It has brought me closer to my family and forced me to have dinners at the table! I also use social media more. Some people may have more friends than before.”

In the process, Leah has learned a lot about herself. “I’ve learned that time with yourself is very important. It’s a time to understand who you really are and what you can be without other people around you. It gave me time to reflect on what I want to do with my future, who I want to be. I understand that I’m not the only one on this planet. It’s not just me running this race, it’s everybody.”

Leah’s two passions – accentuated by the pandemic – are the environment and landscape architecture: “I’m comfortable by myself. I don’t need dinners, parties and friends to feel I’m doing something with my life.  The more I rush, the more time I’m losing. This time has slowed me down to a point where I understand that I’m not going to lose a day because I don’t write my essay in 5 minutes or rush things.”

Leah feels the same about her community. Arlington is close to the Pentagon and – before the pandemic – seemed to be in one long rush hour. The pandemic has made Arlington slow down and take a deep breath: “You don’t have to be rushing all the time – there’s nowhere to go! Everybody has realized that social distancing is important. Masks are required and people are following the rules.”

 

“I’m comfortable by myself. I don’t need dinners, parties and friends to feel I’m doing something with my life.”

Listen to Leah’s podcast interview