Maplewoodians unite artists to protest family separations

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A haunting painting of President Donald Trump, with bright orange skin and disheveled blond hair, devouring a small child’s body brought two Maplewood residents together to launch a new website Saturday, June 23.

The artwork, featuring the words “where are the children” in response to the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, sparked author and audio and radio producer Julie Burstein and Holly McGhee, a creative director of a literary agency, to create Raising Our Voices Today, which provides free protest posters, as well as postcards to send to children separated from their undocumented parents as a result of the policy.

The Zero Tolerance policy, announced by Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions earlier this year, refers all who cross U.S. borders for federal criminal prosecution. As part of this policy, families were unable to stay together in detention centers; parents were sent to jail while children remained in detention in separate facilities.

The policy was rescinded in late June and a judge ordered the Trump administration to reunify families separated by the policy, giving priority to children under the age of 5, who were ordered to be reunited with their parents within 14 days, and all other children within 30 days.

However, it is unclear exactly how many families still need to be reunited. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it has more than 11,800 “unaccompanied alien children” under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. HHS secretary Alex Alzar said that number comprises mostly older teenagers, who came without parents or guardians, and fewer than 3,000 children who might have been separated from their parents, though he did not give an exact number.

Burstein and McGhee have been friends for years and follow each other on social media, where McGhee posted the artwork by Edel Rodriguez, inspired by Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devours His Son,” and it captured the attention of Burstein.

“The moment I saw it, I thought, ‘How do we share this?’ This is so powerful,’” Burstein told the News-Record. “I immediately reached out to Holly and said, ‘Could we share this? I would build a website and just feature any other artists who would want to make posters for us, too.”

McGhee, who owns the literary agency Pippin Properties and works with many authors and illustrators, thought this was a great idea.

“I knew that there were many artists in my circle who would want to help immigrants, support immigrants and were immigrants themselves,” McGhee told the News-Record. “As soon as I reached out to them, the posters started coming in within 24 hours and we have more people who want to participate that we haven’t tapped into yet.”

Rodriguez, an immigrant himself who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 8 and stayed in several detention centers with his family, said that his understanding of the pain these children feel inspired him to create the painting that eventually sparked the creation of Raising Our Voices Today.

“I feel like I know a lot about what these children are going through because I went through it myself,” Rodriguez told the News-Record. “I was pretty much outraged that this country decided to make this a policy to divide kids from their parents. I think it’s really disgusting.

“I always thought of the United States as a welcoming country … and it’s really turned into completely the opposite,” he continued.

Peter Reynolds, a father and an immigrant who created a poster stating “Families Belong Together” geared specifically for children, along with a postcard that says “Your Dreams Are Your Wings,” expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m a big believer that immigration policy needs to be improved and I completely respect the process,” Reynolds told the News-Record, “but I think where I draw the line is children being taken from their parents. It’s a really horrible thing to do.”

The website currently features more than 10 posters and two sets of postcards with four designs in each, all created by different artists.

The postcards are in support of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s initiative Cards for Kids, which urges people to send postcards to the Department of Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement “to show children who’ve been separated from their parents that we’re thinking of them & we care,” Durbin wrote in a tweet.

The images on the website have been downloaded again and again, and have been used in protests nationwide, including the march held in Montclair on June 30.

“I feel these images are full of creativity and love, which is a response to policies that are full of cruelty and hate,” Burstein said.

The duo initially developed the website to bring attention to the Zero Tolerance policy, they said.

“What I had hoped in the beginning was that these images would touch people and encourage them to raise their own voices,” Burstein said. “Art can touch us in ways that all the policy papers in the world may not be able to do.”

Burstein and McGhee said they want to expand their website to offer art on other important topics, including education, health care and voter participation. They also want to work with local organizations and local facilities where separated children might be held to ensure that the postcards reach the children.

“There’s a part of me that thinks that what we’ve just pulled together could only have happened in South Orange and Maplewood,” Burstein said. “Our communities are so full of people with creativity and heart.

“We’ve just had such tremendous support and I’m just so grateful for the creativity and the generosity of our neighbors.”

Photos Courtesy of Julie Burstein and Holly McGhee

Editor’s Note: This story was corrected; it had originally misspelled Julie Burstein’s name.