How many people could one children's book help?
By Eric Ortiz
Homeschooling has been a learning experience. Not just for kids, but moms and dads, too. It's called pandemic parenting, and as pandemic parents, we had to get creative at our house.
Homeschool started on Monday, March 16, 2020. That was the first day our three kids missed in-person school because of COVID-19. That also was the first day our kids, led by my wife, started a "Picture of the Day." Each day they didn't go to school because of the pandemic, our kids (ages 12, 8, and 5) drew a picture that we posted on our front door at the end of the day. The pictures featured images of dolphins, giraffes, unicorns, trees, hand sanitizer, and many other things. Some pictures included messages like "happy birthday," "peace," and "vote."
The idea was to spread a little hope and joy in our Lowry Hill East neighborhood during some difficult times. We thought we would do this for a few weeks, maybe a month or two. We ended up doing a "Picture of the Day" for 358 days.
Homeschool ended on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. That was the last day our kids (now ages 6, 9, and almost 13) missed in-person school because of COVID-19. They returned to school in person on March 10, 2021. For anyone counting at home, homeschool lasted almost a year. Our kids drew 358 pandemic pictures — 1,074 pictures total. You can see every one of them on Instagram @burnsortiz. Art taught our family a lot this year. And those pandemic pictures were just the beginning.
Not long after homeschool started, George Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The site of his death turned into a memorial to honor Floyd's life, and a group of community artists painted a mural of Floyd outside of Cup Foods, the market where Floyd was killed.
This mural became an iconic symbol of solidarity for protesters against racism, police brutality and injustice. It was one of hundreds of murals that were painted across the Twin Cities to memorialize Floyd. The murals expressed a range of emotions: fear, anger, grief, disgust, courage, optimism, love. They also had messages that called for justice, equality, change, peace.
All of this hit close to home. George Floyd died a few blocks from our kids' school, Risen Christ, and many murals were painted in Uptown not far from where we live. George Floyd Square is in the backyard of our kids' school, and the tragedy affected everyone in our community.
But a pandemic and historic civil unrest were not in the parent handbook. So we had to figure out a plan. We want our kids to live in a better world than we do now. We don’t want what is occurring today to be their normal tomorrow. We want to help our kids understand what is happening in our city and community with compassion and empathy. How could we teach our kids about the injustice of racism? How could we explain the fear of law enforcement some people have because of the color of their skin or their immigration status?
I had an idea. Tell a story with our family. So together with my 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, we wrote, illustrated and published a book. The book is called “How the Zookalex Saved the Village.” The book is about building community and fairness. It is available on Amazon.
Fifty percent of our book sales go to a community mentorship organization in North Minneapolis called Brothers EMpowered. It's for a fundraising campaign I organized as a board member for LHENA. The other half of book sales go to my kids, the "Zookalex" book authors and illustrators. Both are worthy causes.
After the community mentorship fundraiser is complete, we will donate 50 percent of book sales to Risen Christ, our kids' school, which is the only Catholic dual immersion school in Minnesota and provides a bilingual education (Spanish/English) to a diverse community of learners. Another worthy cause.
We want this book to give back to the community. We started a book tour (via video) to speak to students in pre-K to third grade about the book and themes in the book: diversity, bullying, heroes. The goal is to start conversations with youngsters about serious topics and show the power of art and imagination. If you are interested in having us speak to a class, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want this book to inspire others to use their imagination to create art and help kids understand that anyone can create art. That art can be anything you want it to be. And that art can be inspiring.
A few weeks after publishing our book, my daughter and son made their first movie. They shot it, edited it on iMovie, and posted it on YouTube. It is called "The Mystery of the Fire King."
The movie inspired their cousins in California to make their own movies. Creativity really is contagious, and this was a beautiful thing to see. How many more kids could we inspire to be creative and use their imaginations?
The imagination is a powerful tool. We want to keep encouraging kids to use their imagination to reach for the stars. It starts with pictures or a story or a movie. But those pictures and stories could lead to much bigger things like no poverty, no inequality, no injustice. Think that’s crazy? Remember, Catholic priest and former Jesuit John Dear reminds us, "abolitionists who imagined a world without slavery … were dismissed as unpatriotic revolutionaries, unrealistic idealists, and crazy lunatics."
Great advances in human history started with an idea. Imagination is the first step to realize those ideas. It's important to learn the value of imagination at a young age and never lose that spark. But today, as Dear recognizes, our culture of war has made it difficult to see a road to peace. That doesn't mean we should stop dreaming of a better world — a world without war or violence or poverty.
We need to reclaim our imagination. We have to begin to dream again of new possibilities. We need to exercise our imaginations, and envision a new world, no matter how crazy others think we are.
Change starts with the imagination. Imagination is the starting point for progress. For anything to change, we first have to believe change is possible.
Can basic human needs be met for all people? Can basic human rights be applied to everyone? Can we move from a system of injustice to a true system of justice for all? The answer to all of these questions depends on us. We need to keep pushing to see things in a new way, then work together (collaborate) to develop plans (practical plans) that can make these visions a reality.
Our world can be whatever we want it to be. A world without wars and bloodshed. A world without racism. A world with justice and peace.
Eric Ortiz is a LHENA board member and on LHENA’s public safety and racial justice committee.