Art for Advocacy: The Face of Family Homelessness

How partners across Washington state are using art for advocacy around homelessness.

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

Inocente at SAM walking down aisle by Steve Schimmelman

Partnering with Seattle Art Museum for the screening of “Inocente” allowed us to reach a new audience of art lovers. Here, they give Inocente a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film. Photo by Steve Schimmelman. 

Republished from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Impatient Optimists” blog, April 7, 2016.

A young woman of color takes the stage. With a quick prop change and shift of her posture, she becomes several different characters: a young military veteran, a successful business executive, a street paper vendor, all of whom have been hit with homelessness.

We sit forward in our chairs. We are mesmerized. Who will she become next? What will happen to the people whose stories she’s telling? And – most importantly – what can we do to help?

Many years later, though that event was filled with impressive speakers, the only one I really remember was the performance artist Sharon N. Williams of The Mahogany Project. Like the others, Sharon reiterated some central truths: that the paths to homelessness can be different than we think; that homelessness can happen to almost anyone; and that it can be sudden.

What Sharon demonstrated so effectively, though, was the potency of art for advocacy. She showed us that stories and art can:

  • Be far more compelling than facts, entertaining and engaging us.
  • Help us avoid the “danger of the single story,” a real problem for social-justice issues.
  • Enter the part of our brain that creates empathy and holds onto memories long term.
  • Evoke a strong desire to do something to help.

And Sharon did this in only a few spell-binding minutes.


Performance artist Sharon N. Williams portrays stories of homelessness at public events and on her YouTube channel.


Read the rest of the story here: Art for Advocacy — The Face of Homelessness


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