When students feel the power of healing and transformation, it gives them hope and a sense of purpose in their educational journey. Bringing illustrations of past injustices to life through art often motivates students to assess where improvements need to occur in our community. Saint Paul College has brought this vision to life with a powerful message of hope and healing through a mural.

Art is a powerful tool for telling essential stories as it brings solid emotions and important facts together, which motivates us to seek better decisions impacting future generations. With a deep, unique history of our campus, acknowledging the good and bad brings necessary learning, as well as a sense of place.

Situated in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul, on the Dakota homelands, our campus is on land that has seen many people displaced by systemic racism. In 1863, the Dakota Expulsion act made it illegal to be Dakota in Minnesota. In the 1960s, the construction of I-94 ripped apart the Rondo neighborhood, a thriving black community. The mural includes additional details about these events and the invitation to honor the land and people by learning more about our history. Recognizing the pain associated with these past transgressions is an important part of our work for justice in the present. And showing this story through a colorful mural opens the eyes of many who enter our campus.

In recent years, the college’s Equity and Inclusion Committee has discussed the importance of using land acknowledgments. In addition to acknowledging the historical challenges of our campus, the group also wanted to highlight our commitment to becoming an Anti-Racist Trauma-Informed (ARTI) institution. After becoming aware of a Cultural Star grant opportunity in early 2021, a collaboration of several departments began putting together a team to put this vision into art to provide a meaningful learning environment for students and visitors. This team led by Wendy Roberson included Jen Rohde from Grants, Anne Dresen from the Foundation, Kyra Engen from Student Life, Emily Hoisington from Faculty, students, and professional artist Thomasina TopBear, who would bring this vision to fruition.

Thomasina (Tomie) TopBear is a self-taught artist from the Oglala Lakota & Santee Dakota Nations. She is a member of the international all-female paint crew Few & Far Women, and her large-scale mural work is on the sides of buildings throughout the country. Thomasina has organized many events focusing on empowering and creating safe spaces for youth and fellow BIPOC artists to practice their crafts. She draws her influences from her Oceti Sakowin culture while using art to express community, social justice, spirituality, and togetherness themes. Thomasina is also the co-founder of City Mischief Murals, a Black, Indigenous, Latinx & Pacific Islander artist collective with a mission to produce murals and creative projects with a primary focus on leadership opportunities for youth and healing through art for communities of color in the Twin Cities. By engaging our community in a narrative that aligns with the College’s ARTI commitment, Tomie sought to foster imagination and help students recognize and channel their creative impulses into two impressive, informative, and memorable design options for the college to consider.

According to Emily Hoisington, Art Instructor, students, staff, and faculty reviewed the design options, and option #1 was selected by the college community along with input vital for the final design as it provided a stronger message of support, care, and connection. Key artistic elements make up part of this unique design that would help illustrate the power of the story. For example, the roots coming out of the middle represent the foundation and our connection to the land, while the hands lifting students depicts the importance of supporting student learning. Houses and bluffs that show the historic Rondo community were taken from photos, while teepees represent the early settlement from the Dakota Oyate. Butterflies were added to the mural as a creative expression of visitors to this special place.

Under the direction of TopBear, students provided many of the painting services for this mural. Three Student Mural Assistants along with many other supporters who saw the powerful message embodied within the project, asked if they could contribute to the art.

One of the Student Mural Assistants was Max Ritter, an Electrical Engineering student, who shared, “Art brings out different emotions for all who view it, and he wants viewers to let the mural come to them emotionally and authentically as they might learn something about history, as well as something about themselves.”

Rosemma Mosley, an Art student, shared, “Working on this important campus project is a bucket-list dream come true as I love the school and feel blessed, honored, and thankful for the opportunity to work on this mural. This project communicates the importance of being respectful, open-minded, and open-hearted while encouraging viewers to think outside the box through different perspectives.

Hoisington is excited to see this project come to life. She believes the mural is a beautiful image of students being held and supported in conjunction with the values we espouse as an institution intent on becoming an anti-racist trauma-informed institution. She was impressed by the student painters who so strongly expressed how much Saint Paul College meant to them and wanted to give something back to the college that would last a long time. Emily just added a new special topics course to her art curriculum, Art and Social Justice, where students research artists like Tommie and others with social justice themes to find social movements that they care about and pursue their passions of telling social movement stories through art. In addition, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the Office of Student Life and Diversity will launch a social justice and the arts program series this spring where participants can explore ways the arts have supported various social justice movements.

Saint Paul College is committed to becoming an anti-racist, trauma-informed institution. The mural honoring the Indigenous land upon which the College is located, along with remembering the impact the I-94 construction had on the Rondo community, is a visual reminder of our commitment as we strive towards equity and social justice.

This project was funded by a Saint Paul Cultural STAR grant. Cultural STAR grants aim to promote cultural vitality and economic growth, particularly in the downtown Cultural District, by strengthening the arts and culture community. This mural is positioned in a prominent location on campus with this poignant title for viewers to see: “When we remember our past, we create a stronger future”