If you walk into the Education Department in downtown Washington and past the elevators, the first thing you encounter is “Total Tolerance.” It’s the name of an exhibit of photographs, paintings and poetry by high school students displayed in the building’s lobby.
Some of the works are jarring. Others are more meditative. All of it is art with a message aimed squarely at the times.
“America’s Target,” a stylized photograph by Janelle Radcliffe, 18, shows a young black woman wearing a veil and holding her arms in front of her as a pair of white hands places them in handcuffs. In a painting titled “Los Pajaritos,” by Juniel Solis, two young men wearing lipstick and dresses gaze with seeming suspicion at the viewer. A work by Ameya Okamoto, “Quanice Hayes,” is a portrait of a 17-year-old from Portland, Ore., who was unarmed when shot and killed by police last year.
It has not escaped the notice of a number of the artists and others that “Total Tolerance” is being shown in a department headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated policies that critics say are intolerant, including her decisions to roll back protections for the LGBTQ community and toss out hundreds of disability rights complaints and civil rights cases alleging discrimination in schools.
Soon after she became secretary, DeVos ended the Obama-era guidance that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. That and other policy decisions have prompted fierce attacks by advocates for affected groups.
“Betsy DeVos has spent the last year and a half relentlessly attacking the rights of transgender students, youth of color, survivors of sexual assault and students with disabilities,” said Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights advocacy organization. She made her remarks in a statement in May following the release of a survey that showed 70 percent of LGBTQ teens said they were bullied at school and that 95 percent reported having trouble sleeping because of anxiety.
“Given the disastrous and dangerous actions of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the question must be asked of everyone in this administration: ‘How do you sleep at night?’ ” Kahn said.
A spokeswoman for DeVos did not respond to an interview request about the exhibit or indicate whether the secretary had seen it. DeVos has previously said decisions regarding transgender bathrooms are best resolved at the state and local levels. And she has said that civil rights complaints had created an enormous backlog that placed “an unreasonable burden” on the department.
Last week, civil rights organizations and advocates for students with disabilities sued the Education Department in federal court, saying the agency’s new procedures for handling complaints violate the law and are “arbitrary and capricious.” An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the litigation Friday but defended changes to the agency’s Office for Civil Rights and said that office maintains a “commitment to robustly investigating and correcting civil rights issues.”
The exhibit of 20 works at the Education Department explores issues of racism, transphobia, immigration, gender identity, disability and suicide, all through the eyes of young artists who say they are seeking understanding, empathy and dialogue. More than anything, they want their voices heard in a country in which they often feel pushed to the boundaries.
“I wanted to make the painting look pretty, but you can tell by the expression of the models in the painting that they are in fear,” said Solis, a 16-year-old junior from Miami who is gay. “They’re in fear of society telling them what they can’t wear or how they have to act. I want people to know that they have to be true to themselves, be who they are. Especially now.”
That sense of urgency, of the need to address these issues immediately, is expressed, too, by the other artists in the exhibit, which is presented by the Education Department in coordination with the National YoungArts Foundation, a Miami nonprofit organization.
“Right now, I feel like I’m not being heard and a lot of young people are not being heard,” said Okamoto, 18, a senior from Portland. Okamoto, who is Asian American, describes herself as an activist artist and is a member of Black Lives Matter. Her work, she says, is focused on “racialized violence, particularly on victims of police brutality.”
Jackye Zimmermann, longtime director of the Student Art Exhibit Program at the Education Department, said the purpose of the exhibit is to encourage discussion of contentious issues.
“The work is very, very strong, and it reflects what teenagers are seeing in the world. They have a sense of history and what is the story of their time,” Zimmermann said. “If their work can evoke a conversation with us and the people who come through here, then we have something very rich and provocative.”
Okamoto said that showing her art at the agency is a way to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise see her work or might disagree with her positions.
“A lot of injustice is happening in our society, and that’s especially prevalent in the Trump administration era,” Okamoto said. “So for me, I’ve created a lot of pieces that I’m not afraid to say are in direct opposition to a lot of the rhetoric that is being spewed by the current administration.”
Luisa Múnera, exhibition manager at YoungArts, curated the exhibit. She doesn’t know if DeVos has seen it but hopes she will and that it makes an impression.
“How could this not be a statement? YoungArts does not take any sides, any political views, but myself as a human being, I am moved by the work that these young artists do, and it’s my responsibility to provide them with the platform to have their voices heard,” Múnera said. “I think she should see this and open her eyes and her ears and her heart. These are the people that she is serving.”
Because of security restrictions, access to the exhibit requires an appointment. Contact Jackye Zimmermann at email@example.com or at 202-401-0762 to make an appointment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.