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Orwell Art: lessons on democracy, civic engagement and global citizenship

Orwell Art: lessons on democracy, civic engagement and global citizenship
Article by: Nadia Guerrera

When a voice remains silent and a story untold, the world is deprived of some aspect of truth and the conscious choice over our future.

The best way forward in a world riddled with issues, is to seek, honor and tell the truth. In this there is great freedom and unshakeable power. Once we know and accept the truth, however difficult it may be, we are empowered to decide how we will move forward. This is precisely why teaching about the atrocities of the past and present, including the Holodomor and the current crisis in Ukraine, matter. They matter for all of us, whether or not we are of Ukrainian decent. They matter because we are all citizens of a global world in a struggle between freedom and oppression, hope and fear, democracy and dictatorship.

The Holodomor is a story of a tragic moment in history which has had lasting effects on generations and was hidden for far too long. During this time, the strong were made week and the resolute rendered silent by forced hunger and terror. These sentiments lingered as survivors pressed on in Displaced Persons camps after Stalin’s purges and World War II, until someone dared to speak the truth. Brave souls like Gareth Jones and George Orwell dared to give voice to the silenced by telling stories- one through journalistic accounts and the other through the tale of farm animals. Neither Jones nor Orwell were Ukrainian, yet they identified with the struggle for justice, freedom and human rights. In this way, both were active global citizens and as such became strong agents of change. Their stories provided hope for people who thought their stories had been forgotten.

Read more: Holodomor: Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932-1933 | Infographic

This spirit of social justice and active engagement is alive and well in Ukraine today and it was sparked by the youth of Maidan Square who rallied the country in a fight for democratic accountability in the fall of 2013. Because of their experience of a free and independent Ukraine, these youth refused to accept President Yanukovych’s broken election promise to enter into an economic agreement with the European Union in exchange for a closer relationship with Russia. As they protested in the bitter cold and even lost their lives in some cases, these Ukrainian youth became global bastions of democracy, fighting for independence, human rights and freedoms and the right to express our voices. Yanukovych abandoned his post in the winter of 2014 and democratic elections took place that spring in Ukraine. This is a powerful lesson for students because in it, they can see themselves- young, free and hopeful for their future- and they can see the power of active citizenship at work.

These lessons provide hope while learning about other current global issues. We see this very struggle for democracy, rights and freedoms playing out around the world, whether it is in Syria under Assad, in Iraq under ISIS or in eastern Ukraine under Putin. It is essential that students understand the fragility of democracy and feel a sense of hope in their ability to affect positive change in the world. This is what Orwell Art is all about- engaging students as democratic citizens of a global world.

More specifically, Orwell Art is unit of study developed to teach about the fragility of democracy and the role of civic engagement in safeguarding it around the world. Students are empowered through the experience of learning about current issues in Ukraine, the historical context which lies at the root of these issues and then using social media to connect with authors and journalists writing about these issues as well as with students around the world. Orwell Art culminates in an expression of learning through the creation of public art monuments to depict the struggle for democracy and the power of global citizenship. Like Orwell, students use the power of art to communicate the fragility of democracy and urgent human rights issues, past and present. The art exhibits are open to the public with photos posted on social media tagged #‎OrwellArt. In this way, Orwell Art is a larger movement connecting students across boarders in a common aim of social justice and civic engagement. Overall, Orwell Art provides an inspiring and empowering experience for students. It works to spark within them, an interest in stewardship and democratic engagement, teaching students that every voice matters.

Through the experience of Orwell Art, students come away knowing that every wave of change is made up of single drops bound together in a forward momentum. Like single drops, we are each called as active global citizens to come together and connect. There is great momentum in the connection. Orwell Art provides students with an opportunity to learn realities about the past and present as a means of being empowered to affect the present and the future. They do so through the power of art in the spirit of Orwell and Jones who told the truth and in so doing set forth a wave of change that we saw rise up once again in Maidan Square. If we remain engaged citizens, the waves will continue to rise around the world whenever a free person is asked to kneel.

Some photos of art created after the lessons:

To find out more about Orwell Art or to participate in this project, please connect with us on our Facebook page entitled Orwell Art or email Nadia Guerrera at [email protected].


Nadia Guerrera is the developer of Orwell Art, a unit of study that teaches about the fragility of democracy and the role of civic engagement in safeguarding it both in Canada and around the world.


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