Last week, I wrote about the concept of “radical empathy”—the idea of TRYING to “walk around in someone else’s skin” even when you know that true understanding might be impossible.
The treatment of those who struggle with active addiction calls for radical empathy, as often the disease causes behavior that’s very hard to understand. This morning, I’m lucky enough to sit down with my friend and local artist, Lisa Kelley, to hear about her incredible program Tea and Textiles, which offers just this kind of experience to the homeless and addicted on the streets of Kensington in Philadelphia.
A: Good morning, Lisa! Thanks for chatting with me today!
L: Hi, Abbey! Thank you for the opportunity!
A: Tell me a little bit the work you’re doing with Tea and Textiles.
L: Tuesday Tea and Textiles is a free art workshop that I hold every week at Kensington and Somerset, in the heart of the drug market, with my colleague, Kathryn Pannepacker. We welcome anyone and everyone to make art with us. That often means that community members, artists, friends, those who are homeless and those in active addiction are sitting beside each other, talking, sharing tea and snacks and creating together. You can read a recent article on the program here.
A: What kind of projects do you offer?
L: In the morning session, we sew and make talismans. Talismans are objects that are believed to bring good luck and keep their owner safe from harm. We put a positive message inside each talisman. We also write on strips of fabric for Epidemic, another project I’m working on. In the afternoon, we weave and make pieces to be added to the The Healing Blanket Project.
A: Tell me more about Epidemic.
L: Epidemic is a series of weavings thematically connected by the struggles, the despair, and the stories of hope surrounding addiction. Each weaving is created with strips of fabric on which people affected by addiction write a wish, a prayer, a dream, a memory. The messages of love and loss are knotted and woven together, then threaded onto and suspended from sticks found in parks in Kensington. You can see more on my website or my Facebook page.
A: You often share pictures on social media of individual messages written on the fabric—the words are incredibly powerful and really strike a chord of common understanding that calls for deep compassion. I’ve shared here that LIFELINE was inspired by my family’s experience with addiction. What was your inspiration for these projects?
L: My inspiration goes way back. My childhood friend, who lived across the street from me in Kensington, fell victim to the pull of addiction. Years later, I intervened to help raise her son. Then, I observed the rippling effects of this disease, as her son, too, became addicted. For me, this is a story of bearing witness, of gaining empathy and compassion, of taking action and reaching beyond the personal to affect change in my community.
A: Has this project been a lifeline for you?
L: This project has given me the opportunity to return to my roots (Kensington) where I have been able to give back to the neighborhood where I grew up. I have connected with people who have opened my heart in ways that I never imagined possible. I have witnessed people helping each other and showing kindness in a place that the outside world sees as scary and broken. I have listened to stories that have made me grateful for the life that I lead.
A: How do you think this project serves as a lifeline for others?
L: Our “sanctuary studio” on Tuesdays welcomes those who others may view as not worthy. The friends we sit next to and laugh and cry with on Tuesdays often just want someone to listen to them and treat them as if they matter. The simple act of listening is a lifeline for some. We have regulars who visit each week and look forward to getting off the streets for a little bit. We’ve heard that programs like ours are very much needed in the neighborhood, and that we treat participants with kindness, which they don’t experience very often when they are in active addiction.
One morning, a young man came to our studio and asked to be put to work to keep him from using. He spent the day sweeping, cleaning up, and helping out anyway he could. We all connected with him—spent time talking to him and wanted to help him. He returned the next week and stayed again. At the end of that session, someone picked him up and took him to treatment. He recently reached out to us to tell that it was his new beginning—he is now in recovery and giving back to his peers.
A: What a powerful example! How can we find out more or get involved with the incredible work that you’re doing in Kensington?
L: If you’re local, come on down to our workshops on Tuesdays from 10-3 at the Kensington Storefront, or email me at email@example.com.
A: Thanks so much for sharing your story with me today!
L. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and for being brave enough to share your own! I look forward to reading LIFELINE!