December 1, 2020

Melissa Raman Molitor, MA, ATR-BC, LCPC

Melissa is an artist, educator and art therapist in the Chicago area. She has a BA in Psychology and a BFA from the University of Michigan, a Masters Degree in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a board-certified registered art therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor. Melissa’s experience lies in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors working with children and families. She has over 20 years of experience in culturally relevant social-emotional art and trauma-related therapeutic work with young people. Her focus is on social art practice as a way to participate in grassroots arts organizing with Black, Brown, Indigenous People of Color, families who are recent immigrants and refugees, and young people to build community coalitions for social justice. Melissa is Director of Kids Create Change, currently serves on the Evanston City Arts Council, and is an Associate Professor, Adj. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Learn more about Melissa’s work on her website.

Please describe your engagement with the AATA

My history of service lies with my local chapter, having served as the IATA program director, ethics chair, exhibitions chair, and conference chair early in my career. I’ve been a member of AATA for much of the past 20+ years, attended annual conferences and presented papers and workshops. I value the importance in remaining connected to the broader art therapy community in the US and am grateful for the advocacy and scholarship that AATA generates.

I feel that AATA is especially instrumental in supporting recent graduates who are transitioning to new professionals in the field. My first AATA conference was as a student in 1997, and the following year I was honored to be the recipient of AATA’s Student Multicultural Scholarship Award. I vividly remember feeling excited about the potential to be part of a community that aligned with my deeply rooted relationship with art and validated the power of art to foster healing and encourage personal change. There are various ways in which AATA has played a role in my development and success as an art therapist in subsequent years, but a true connection to the association always seemed out of my reach.

As someone who exists in the margins of multiple identities, cultural groups, and communities, the familiar feeling of being on the outskirts of yet another group became apparent soon after joining as a new professional. The dearth of representation of people of color and multiple expressions of identity in the organization and the centering of voices and visibility of the few in positions of power contributed to feelings of otherness and marginalization. As an art therapist of color, I experienced a steeper learning curve in navigating and advancing in the field. The struggle to attain and maintain a seat at the proverbial table is real, and the systems in place to maintain the status quo in organizations, academia, and the art world presents often impenetrable barriers. The spaces that center the voices of artists and art therapists of color and non-normative expressions of identity are limited. I found freedom and purpose in creating alternate spaces where the sharing of stories, experiences, and multiple expressions of identity are amplified, and the wisdom and knowledge rooted in diverse races and cultures are elevated.

For over 2 decades, my work has been focused on using those spaces to create opportunities that bring focus to those voices that often go unheard, and in turn I found my own voice as a mixed media artist, community art therapist, and social activist. That voice was effectively silenced in unimaginable ways as a result of the 2016 election and AATA’s actions that followed. The fear and sadness I felt as a result of the new administration’s values and policies, and the immense othering that I experienced resurfaced with force when the organization made the decision to enter into a relationship with second lady Karen Pence. Many feel it was a non-political move, but to me it felt like an act of complicity with discrimination, racism, and white supremacy. This, while countless organizations in social and mental health fields were publicly denouncing the current leaders in office. “The personal is political” is not just a slogan… it has power, it is fact.

I could not have felt more personally impacted by this “non-political” move. I couldn’t reconcile how an organization that was created to serve as a refuge for professionals who represent and support those under attack had failed to do so in such spectacular form. It made me feel as a member, who had no role or input in this act, complicit as well. The trauma that resulted in the aftermath had professional and personal consequences. The ripple effects that flowed into my practice, my teaching, my department, and my relationships with colleagues were destructive. As a result, I withdrew from AATA following the 2017 conference for all intents and purposes. During this time, I also stepped away from a private practice that I started 10 years prior with a dear friend and colleague, and I took a sabbatical from my 15 year teaching position. Looking back, I recognize that the actions of AATA as well as my own actions were part of something so much larger. A larger political narrative that would head down an even darker path in the coming years. But I assure you, it was and remains personal.

It’s not until this year that I find myself re-examining my relationship with AATA as I reflect on all aspects of my life amidst the pandemic, the 2020 election, the civil unrest, the devastated communities, the environmental catastrophes, the violent injustices and the incomprehensible grief and loss that many are experiencing and that permeate my body and soul. It’s not a coincidence that my teaching focus has shifted and that my practice has taken on new life in the form of a non-profit organization focusing on young people and the role of art in antiracist education and social engagement. These past four years have shifted my work in ways that are not born from the outside looking in, rather from the inside working out.

I decided to maintain my membership in AATA in order to stay informed. It was a surprisingly challenging decision as my instinct was to walk away and not look back, but I felt a responsibility to remain abreast of what our national organization was doing, especially for the benefit of my students and supervisees. I continue to navigate the role that AATA plays in my professional life, knowing that the healing will come. I am witnessing with cautious optimism the steps that AATA has been taking over recent years, and I continue to seek out the spaces where I might be an agent of change instead of giving up that hard fought seat at the table.

What has changed (or remained the same) in your job during the COVID-19 pandemic?

My art practice, community practice, and teaching are all rooted in participatory art, collective ritual, and community care. The loss of sharing physical space with others is challenging, but not impossible; not ideal but necessary. My work continues to be focused on centering art and stories told with voices that are often silenced or go unheard. I continue to create opportunities for meaningful connection through communal ritual and seek ways to address equity and justice through community healing and collective care. The pandemic merely served as an unavoidable reality check of the gross racial and social inequities that exist as a result of structural racism and has amplified the work that is needed. The major shift has been in how this work will continue to happen.

The virtual realm has not only offered diverse opportunities to continue and grow relationships with others, it has illuminated the disparities in access and opportunity that disproportionately affect communities of color and diverse abilities. We are just now as a society grappling with the limitations brought on by the pandemic, and recognizing the need for diverse entry points for engagement and participation and how catering to the “norm” causes harm, as if these injustices hadn’t existed prior to this world-wide crisis. In my own work I am working to further my knowledge by learning from those who have long been working towards disability justice and applying this to my practice.

In what ways have your clients been impacted by COVID-19?

My work isn’t defined in client-therapist terms, rather it’s based in collaborative sharing, healing, and action. I endeavor to continue creating opportunities where I can participate with other members of my community in storytelling, public art, and dialogue around issues of diversity, equity and antiracism. My community has been impacted by the pandemic in ways that make creative expression and arts engagement a vital form of connection, so my focus has shifted to finding innovative ways to maintain that connection given the social and physical restrictions. In my work with young people, I am cognizant of the increase in feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and loss, and the challenges for families who are experiencing even greater barriers to access for physical and emotional health services. Together with my co-founder and fellow art therapist Angela Lyonsmith we are finding ways to pivot the services of Kids Create Change to provide free art materials and virtual arts engagement to families with limited access, and to offer virtual workshops through partnerships with local schools that create space for students to share and process their experiences in creative ways.

Since the killing of George Floyd, the topic of race has once again been brought to the forefront of national dialogue. How have race related issues, social justice, and racism informed or impacted your work as an art therapist or studies as a student?

As a woman of color, issues of race, racism, equity and justice are ever present in every aspect of my life, not just my work. To say that these topics are just now at the forefront of what needs to be talked about or addressed is to say so from a place of privilege. I would be lying if I didn’t say that there is a bit of relief that comes from not being the only person in the room who “keeps bringing up race” but it’s discomforting to accept that the relief is a result of white people deciding that now is when this dialogue needs to take place.

I think the divisiveness of our sociopolitical climate has had a tremendous impact on my work, both in my teaching and my practice. I find myself in the familiar position of having to navigate several spaces occupied by people who are experiencing and reacting to the current climate in very different ways. Not only do I participate in the typical spaces where I am the token person of color expected to relive my racial trauma for the purpose of awareness and dialogue and questioned for being uncooperative or combative if I refrain, there are also spaces that I participate in with people of color who question my brownness, my pedagogy, my practice, and my commitment to doing the work that is needed because my approaches to social justice differ from theirs. It begs the questions who defines these terms and who do these terms serve? For many in the field, we practice what we preach. We make art as a way to express ourselves and to process our experiences of our world. I am no different. Over the past few years and this year especially, I’ve come to recognize how much my experiences of discrimination and fear kept me from speaking my truth beyond the art that I created.

I realized that my art which has always been a safe place had become too safe. What’s changed for me is my voice is a little stronger, more directed, and it takes on many forms in addition to art making and writing, like teaching with more authenticity and vulnerability, and engaging in political action, social movements, and coalition building. I continue to examine my own bias and privilege, and to understand my role in perpetuating or dismantling racism and oppression. This work includes unpacking my upbringing as an Asian American daughter of immigrants which is wrought with active and passive anti-blackness, and the history of colorism and racial discrimination that exists between communities of color. I draw inspiration for my current practice from the history of solidarity between Asian and Black communities in the fight for civil rights, and am endeavoring to walk the path that Black activists paved and shared with Asian activists in obtaining the political and social freedoms that continue to benefit communities of color today.

“Offering” by Melissa Raman Molitor. Mixed Media with Papyrus, Fabric and Found Objects. 2016.

I am a first generation Asian Pacific Islander American of Filipino and Indian descent, a cisgender able-bodied woman of color, a survivor of violent trauma, the daughter of immigrants in a society that sees me as a perpetual foreigner despite my birth in the US, a descendant of healers, a working mother to mixed race children in a society that will persecute them for who they are and who they choose to love, an activist whose professional practice involves the visual, performative and culinary arts as a vehicle for healing justice, an educator and social practitioner dedicated to working with young people in the fight against discrimination and the creation of a society that is equitable, and an artist and scholar in terms not defined by a white, colonial, patriarchal, academic system, but by women storytellers, cultural weavers and social framers.

As an artist, educator, art therapist and activist my work is multidisciplinary in nature. My personal art work is an expression of my lived experiences and the narratives associated with my identity, generational history, and intersectional cultures. My social art practice is the creation of ‘third spaces’ in my community — spaces that exist in between and outside of the ‘norm’ and encourage connection, creativity, learning, growth, courage, resilience, resistance, and empowerment. I believe that third spaces are the areas where we can collectively harness the power of the arts to learn from, respond to, and address the historical and current socio-cultural-political injustice experienced by people who are identified as ‘marginalized’ in our country but are the global majority. I bring not only an educational and aesthetic approach to my work, but also a therapeutic lens to designing and implementing art-based projects that seek to decolonize art in our communities, are culturally relevant, inclusive of diverse backgrounds and abilities, equitable in access, sensitive to emotional and psychological concerns, and trauma-informed.

My work takes on physical, virtual, and even metaphorical forms, but they all center on art as a vehicle for self-expression, fostering relationships, building community, and social change. With a focus on elevating the work and amplifying the voices of people representing all expressions of identity — gender, sexuality, race, culture, ethnicity, ability, and social and economic status, I work in collaboration with local artists, groups and organizations to create spaces where people come together to engage in dialogue, harness the power of creativity, and build a more just community.

In what ways has your living or work space changed?

I work from home, teach from home, and make art at home. Home has been a much more interesting place since the onset of the pandemic. My partner hasn’t traveled since March and now works solely from home, and my two teenage boys have been participating in school from home for eight months without extracurricular or summer activities. Although this can at times be a recipe for disaster, I have endless gratitude for our present circumstances as we’re all able to continue working and be together. Our obstacles to taking it one day at a time are few compared to the countless individuals faced with illness and isolation, and families who are experiencing irreparable damage to their lives.

How do you view your role as an art therapist or student during COVID-19?

I feel my role as a community art therapist is to find creative and innovative ways to continue the work rooted in connection and care. It includes endless vigilance and determination when it comes to issues of equity and access to basic physical and psychological needs. With the COVID-19 pandemic people are faced with losses that are severely impacting their mental health — the death of loved ones, separation from family and friends, isolation, and the loss of social and cultural rituals. Together with the ever-present pandemic of racism and the continued loss of civil rights for countless communities it is progressively unbearable. The vital importance of arts experiences and engagement in all forms has become increasingly clearer. This is an opportunity to utilize the arts as a vehicle for healing and change. A great deal of power lies in art as a way to partner with residents, schools, and community organizations who are doing the work of equity, antiracism, and social justice which are at the heart of the pandemic crises that our communities are facing.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Admittedly I was unsure how to respond when I was approached to be a featured member. My membership began over 20 years ago and I have had many different reasons to remain a member over time, the most important being the relationships that I’ve maintained throughout and the responsibility I feel to my students to be a bridge to the national professional organization of their field of choice. I believe AATA has the potential to be the resource and refuge that art therapists seek, the central hub for information about the field, networking, research and scholarship. I believe that AATA has the opportunity to right wrongs, to heal wounds, and to do the work that is necessary to be an organization that represents all of its members by actively engaging, centering and amplifying diverse voices. My long relationship with AATA has had its rewards and its disappointments, not unlike most relationships we experience throughout our lives.

My recent reengagement with AATA has been slow as a result of the past harm caused, but I felt this was an opportunity to share my experiences and to use my voice. I can only hope that my words will be shared with others as part of AATA’s commitment to moving forward with intention and action. My seat at the table is hard fought and deserved and I’m not ready to give it up just yet, and I look forward to exploring what that means for me. I see the recent work that individuals in AATA are trying to do and I am grateful for their perseverance and faith that what has been broken can be mended. I have hope for the future of AATA because I know the people who are stepping up represent values that I believe in, but I also know it will take time. Though borne from difficult circumstances, I am also grateful to those who have stepped away from AATA and are forming coalitions that are doing the work of change with more immediacy. Their work is why I have hope in the direction of our field, and I have faith in future generations of art therapists who have the power to alter the face of art therapy.