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School of Needlework for Disobedient Women-where art meets activism

Instead of spending the summer at the pool or sitting around on their phones, one group of Berea teens is learning the ancient craft of embroidery and how it’s been used for decades to empower women.  

Arts reporter Cheri Lawson spent time at the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women.  

Sitting on gold, purple, and red velvet antique couches in a venue that feels like a large but cozy living room, a group of teenagers is hovering over pieces of fabric. They’re having sessions on the “how-tos” of embroidery. Fifteen-year-old Arabella Huff said she heard about the workshop for kids her age when she saw a flier on Facebook.  

”It said they discussed like feminist and political topics while you stitch, and I thought, I can get behind that,” reported Huff.  

Huff pushed her wavy brown, shoulder length hair behind her ears and recalled her reaction to the name of the summer workshop -- The School of Needlework for Disobedient Women. ”That made it more appealing to me cause, I have some very feminist ideals. So, I was like, ok,that's my people.”  

Huff said she gets to go just about every day, all day for two weeks. There are 12 teens altogether and they talk about everything from media literacy to identity to the rollback of Roe. Vs. Wade.  

Cecelia Rhoden is one of the creators of the workshop. It’s funded in part by an art meets activism grant from The Kentucky Foundation for Women. Rhoden said there was a time when needlework was used as a tool to prepare girls for marriage. But she said those skills were eventually used as a form of activism to document injustices. They were also used to stitch things like suffrage banners advocating for the right to vote. Rhoden said, The School of Needlework for Disobedient Women is a nod to all those women and the evolution of their work.  

”They took that skill that they were taught to help marry them off, and they used it to just like scream, ‘I’m not happy, and I’m doing something about it,’ ” explained Rhoden.  

Kiana Mahjub, the workshop’s other co-founder, said she and Rhoden are both teaching artists. Mahjub said they’re guiding teens to learn about self-expression using embroidery. And there’s something else they’re learning here. “Just learning how to speak their minds and not be afraid to do it here,” said Mahjub.  

Mahjub walks over to a table where four girls are embroidering and chatting. Adyson Shepherd is stitching the likeness of a woman’s body. The fourteen-year-old points out the large thighs and stretch marks, saying the body reflects how SHE looks. “I feel like it would be an empowering move if I just embroider a body because it reminds me of how everyone is beautiful in their own way,” said Shepherd.  

Across the room, Cadence Perman sits to one side of a gold velvet couch and works on a square of fabric pulled taut with an embroidery hoop. Perman identifies as agender. The 15-year-old is new to needlework but carefully stitches a design with a message. “It says, ’respect my existence or expect my resistance,’ and then I made a uterus … with my ovaries as the lesbian and non-binary flags,” said Perman.  

The free two-week workshop has received some funding and coaching from Shannon Downey, an art activist known on Instagram as Bad Ass Cross Stitch. She says The School of Needlework for Disobedient Women is especially important because, in her words, there’s been a backslide in the rights of women and folks of marginalized genders.  

“The only way that’s going to change is if we’re supporting our young people in understanding that they have power and that they have autonomy and that they have say,” said Downey.  

The blend of art and activism has been a highlight of the summer for most of these teens who are thirteen to sixteen years old.  

Iris Dorroh-Sheehan, Samantha Robinson, Jade Brewer, Alexandra Beisner, Maria Sears, and Cerra Miller share some of what they’ll take away from the School of Needlework for Disobedient Women.  

“ I love the people here, I love the environment, it’s so open, Yeah we feel safe here, Just talking openly and not sugar-coating it, It’s given me more confidence being here, seeing that there are women like me, With feminism, a lot of people have been embroidering things related to that, It feels relieving. It feels like this is a trust space where we can be ourselves without worrying about it.”  

The workshop is only in its second year. Co-founders Rhoden and Mahjub said they’re working on a plan to replicate it and share with other teaching artists, so their work can do the most good for the most people.  

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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