Owl & Panther Cultivates Resilience

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“On the seventh day, only the owl and the panther were still awake.
Because they did not succumb to sleep, they were given the power to see in the dark.”

– from a Cherokee Creation Story

There is a celebratory story of refugee families finding their voices and transcending trauma here in Tucson, and it is told by Owl & Panther, a 20-year old project of The Hopi Foundation. The Hopi Foundation’s Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence initially facilitated support groups and tutoring, then broadened into an expressive arts priority that ensured a nurturing refuge for the vulnerable, building self-sufficiency and abilities to tell their stories. Owl & Panther helps the resettled refugee families heal and keep culture close through activities including writing, poetry and media workshops, community service and experiences in nature. Through exhibits, including the Museum of Sanctuary installation on exhibit at the Tucson Museum of Art until January 2016, refugee children see their work validated in ways that enhance their self-determination and establish a connection to the community.

At Owl and Panther

Having fun while learning to work as a community

Author and Teaching Artist Marge Pellegrino is Owl & Panther program manager, and she explains how Owl & Panther is an expression of justice as well as art:

“Most of the families we serve come from places without a ‘formal equality of rights and privileges’ that democracy implies. Within the OP, they have a voice they see honored and respected. They see/experience that their opinions and contributions can strengthen the group. The participants themselves all had a voice in creating the foundational guidelines for our safe-space community and we weave in experiences that support the interests and curiosities expressed.”

Program Roots in Hopi Tradition

According to the Owl & Panther website, the Hopi people have a fundamental belief in community through the practice of nami’nangwa and sumi’nangwa — traditional value of helping others in time of need and supporting the community for the benefit of humankind. The Hopi Foundation started its work with refugee families under The Sanctuary Movement during the late 1980s, helping Guatemalan families traumatized in their homeland transition to the United States.

“The Sanctuary Movement was a civil initiative of the 1980s that challenged a U.S. policy that disallowed those fleeing genocide in Central America from seeking asylum,” Marge explains. “After years of struggle, arrests, and a trial, those families were allowed to seek legal status. Many were being treated here in Tucson for the effects of torture, trauma, and traumatic dislocation. The parents expressed concern for their children. In 1995, the youth group that would later be called Owl & Panther was born from those expressed concerns.”

At Owl and Panther

Kids exercise critical thinking skills.

When refugee participants explore expression in non-judgmental ways, a sense of ownership and resilience is derived, according to findings of a 10-month Owl & Panther assessment. Maisa Taha, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Montclair State University, was the post-doctoral researcher with the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at The University of Arizona who led the assessment. “Based on what we learned, it’s not the art alone that is important but the particular ways Owl & Panther works with participants to encourage their art making. Through sustained attention to participants over the course of several years, Owl & Panther turns art into a tool for overcoming trauma, connecting people across cultures and languages, and building a sense of community. Art becomes a channel for validating the artists’ fundamental humanity.”

Museum As Sanctuary

At Owl and Panther

Working from an art springboard.

A collaboration with the Tucson Museum of Arts Education Center has creatively amplified refugee voices since 2010: A Museum As Sanctuary multimedia exhibition of refugee stories and art involving culture, community, and identity. In the 2015 Perspectives of Resilience iteration, the exhibition features a handmade paper kites centerpiece, a creative expression of refugee wishes created with Vietnamese artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen.

“Museums are often assumed to be an ivory tower of privileged intellectual knowledge, but Museum as Sanctuary proves that museums, the artworks they contain, as well as the opportunities of creative expression, are for everyone,” notes Marianna Pegno, TMA Associate Curator of Education. “…The bridging of the art museum world, with the social justice world in Museum As Sanctuary, illuminates the ways in which art is a powerful tool for equity and justice — not just by leveling the museum playing field, but also displaying works of art with accompanying descriptions that are written/created from multiple perspectives. Museum As Sanctuary in its programmatic design, and the exhibition in its curatorial design, begin to shake up hierarchy in favor of a more equitable dialogue and practice.”

The studies illustrate what we intuitively know — that a sense of individual self-worth and empowerment is fundamental to civic health. “Engaging in the arts supports resilience,” says Marge. “I believe democracy is better supported by an educated resilient constituency.”


  • Watch a documentary and learn more about the 2015 Museum As Sanctuary TMA exhibition here.
  • MIT Center for Civic Media 2010 report of another refugee creative writing programs is here with blog and video here.

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