“Day by Day”: A conversation with Cheryl Jefferson, Founder of “The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions”

When considering the “Breaking Criminal Traditions” initiative it is important to look at how it came to be. Cheryl Jefferson a noted writer, producer, and speaker is the mastermind of this exhibit and movement. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cheryl to discuss the creation of “The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions” and her ultimate goal for this project.

First Cheryl disclosed that the initial inspiration came to her in an unlikely location. While waiting in the studio lobby before belly dance class she began reading an Elle Magazine article about the women potentially being attacked and killed for participating in this art form. “It was the first time I had ever encountered the term honor killing”, she said “but I was stunned because I have found the dance to be quite joyous and beautiful . . .things went to a completely different level when I found out that belly dance was a punishable offense. It was even more of a mystery to me why there would be such retribution for these things. Once you start researching and once you uncover honor killing that leads you to an entire strata of society that’s based on honor cultures, then that takes you to child marriage and then child marriage takes you to female genital mutilation and so there is layer after layer  . . . it is mind blowing when you think about the millions of women affected worldwide”.

While this magazine article was the spark that ignited Cheryl’s passion for what she now does, she works to instill this project with the values with which she was raised. In our conversation, Cheryl noted, “I was raised by parents who had a very keen sense of justice and fair play. That was always a topic of conversation at our dinner table growing up, what was right, what was fair, sometimes these things are not the same so that’s always sort of a conundrum as you are learning to make your way in the world”.  Cheryl understands the dichotomy of right and fair in her own life due to the loss of her only sister to pancreatic cancer. “My sister made a tremendous impact on my life”, said Cheryl. “Her presence made the planet a better place . . . so after she passed I spent a lot of time thinking about how I really want to spend the rest of my blessedly healthy time on the planet”.

Cheryl maintains that the loss of her sister led her to revaluate what is truly important. “I decided to redefine my definition of success” she explains “and when I ran into the Elle article I realized that through “Breaking Criminal Traditions”, I could bring everything I knew about my own art and the arts in which my colleagues work, to try to impact (these issues). (I realized) that this would be an incredibly worthwhile use of my time and my talent and that goes back to my sister who also had a tremendous sense of justice and fair play; so it all really came together at that moment and there is no doubt in my mind that this is the right path for me”. By switching gears about the meaning of success and not allowing it to revolve around personal accomplishments or gain. Cheryl is able to speak out for the well being of others who are struggling for basic rights in our world.

Cheryl’s background in the arts and her relationships with individuals in that world have allowed her to utilize fine arts to bring awareness to the public. Awareness, being the most important aspect of the exhibit. When asked why she chose to communicate these sensitive issues through art Cheryl recollected what one expert told her, “My colleague said the reason art was so powerful was because it doesn’t ask anything of you. You can sit in front of a ballet or a Van Gogh, or listen to Mozart and you can make the decision not to be impacted, or you can see flowers and bunny rabbits, or, you know whatever you choose to see, but if you put things in a context for people as we do with “Breaking Criminal Traditions”  suddenly you begin to see very different layers, the art gives you the opportunity to get as close as you would like or to step back from it all if you wish”.

Cheryl attributes the success of this communication of these issues to the exhibition’s curator Charles Gniech, and his elegant piece selection. Charles’ high aesthetic caliber steers him away from overtly gory pieces and exemplifies the nuanced issues in preexistent work of varying artists. According to Cheryl, this approach makes it easier to communicate these difficult messages because, “if the pathway to access is beautiful, that contrast, that duality, makes the ultimate truth of these topics even stronger”.

Cheryl’s goal for this exhibit, which she constantly states, is not to create a realm in which to bash gender, culture, or religion, but to bring awareness to the general public about issues that may go unnoticed and to change the “chain of thinking” that perpetuates the denial of basic human rights to millions. “It is not about us marching into other places to say, ‘oh you’ve been wrong for two thousand years let us fix you’, that’s not it”, says Cheryl.  “It is more that we’ve seen evidence of these problems in the US, this is how we handled it, and to learn the scope of the problem in your country, and then to listen to their conversation and find out how we can support them”. In her blue sky Cheryl says, “I would love to see awareness build all over the United States”. Her goal and the goal of the exhibit is to create positive change and basic human rights for all, “The whole idea is it is possible to create something that can lead to a tipping point and really can make a change in the world; now I don’t know how long that will take but we’ll just tackle it day by day and see what happens”.

Cheryl supports her message of change by continually putting together new creative initiatives, constantly educating herself, and conversing with experts in the field. She also participates in the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Cheryl and the BCT team believe that everyone can take steps to inspire awareness and change by visiting the “Breaking Criminal Traditions” exhibit at North Central College, or the Bridgeport Art Center in the upcoming months. We also urge everyone to take advantage of our location and attend lectures and classes in the Chicagoland area. Finally, remember that ongoing education is key to understanding these issues. We urge you to take a look at the UN Women website and to reach out to local experts, high schools, faith based organizations, and other educational programs. There are many places to start and the sooner we all start, the sooner we can create a cultural tipping point that can lead to positive change.

While Cheryl Jefferson is an awe-inspiring woman due to her breadth of knowledge and passion for life, we can all take a page from her book and redefine our definition of success to encompass the well being of others.

Sydney Pacha – writer/producer-