The Art of Hope: One Student's Journey
In August 2020, Ryan Lomber, like so many students, struggled to manage multiple crises.
By Virginia Myers
In August 2020, Ryan Lomber, like so many students, struggled to manage multiple crises. Looking back on that time, she remembers feeling isolated because of the pandemic. She was trying to absorb the death of Breonna Taylor, then the murder of George Floyd. She was dealing with what she calls “the insurmountable number of mental health issues” playing out in her Portland, Ore., community and nationally.
It was a heavy burden for anyone, and Ryan hadn’t even started eighth grade. But this resilient, resourceful teen powered on, looking for some way she could make things a little bit better. “I wanted so badly to do something to help,” she says. “Art was one way I could express myself.”
So Ryan painted, hoping her work would become a source of comfort. The result is a collection of inspirational posters with messages of hope and love. First, she gave one to her principal at Twality Middle School, thinking he could use his school platform to share it with others. Then she painted nine posters for her sixth-grade teacher. Today, hundreds of Ryan’s posters hang on classroom walls, in school hallways, in medical clinics and offices, and in one area hospital.
Their messages are bright: “In this classroom, we believe love is love,” reads one. “Kindness is everything,” says another. Others say women’s rights are human rights, science is real, Black lives matter, mental health is fundamental, neurodiversity is beautiful, teachers make a difference in our lives. The colorful art is whimsical, but also powerful. The message is strong.
Ryan says she has always had a passion for social justice, which she calls “the fuel to my fire,” and she gives credit to her grandmother, who has always pushed her to “be my best self with this sort of stuff.” But she admits creating and sharing these posters was a little nerve-wracking at first. “It takes a lot for a kid to have that kind of courage and then act on it, especially during middle school,” she says. But teachers and others in her community encouraged her, and she was convinced she could affect change.
If we can help students “feel safe, included and accepted, then we can inevitably increase the level of tolerance and compassion not only in the kids but in the adults they will later become,” says Ryan.
Now a sophomore in high school, Ryan has printed off hundreds of posters, hoping to increase that to thousands; she has given some away, but most she sells, sending all profits to Packed with Pride, a local group that provides food for families in need.
The AFT learned about Ryan through community activist Michelle Walker; her organization, Bridge and Bolster LLC creates connections to help heal a community torn apart two years ago. In the midst of national protests and social upheaval, fights over mask mandates and racial justice, her school district erupted over a proposed ban on any flags other than American and Oregonian flags — LGBTQIA+ rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter banners would have been prohibited.
In the end, the ban did not pass, but it was a contentious time in the community. Now Walker works with the school district to create conversations and forums to “mend those fractures and create a space to become more unified.” Despite disagreements on details, she says, “At the very basic level, we all want what’s best for our kids. We want them to be safe, and we want them to be happy.”
That’s why Ryan’s messages of generosity and acceptance resonated with Walker, who says they were especially impressive coming from such a young person. “Kids have a really powerful voice,” she says. “Sometimes we need to give them the mic and the stage.” So that is what Walker is doing, providing pro bono promotional support for Ryan’s art sales.
Ryan still creates an array of social justice messaging, but over time she has shifted her emphasis to acceptance with messages like “Be true to yourself.” She believes in making room for diverse political opinions and wants individuals to feel free to express who they really are. “People should be able to live out their truth and be who they want to be,” she says.
What is Ryan’s truth? To continue to advocate for justice and diversity, to follow that spark nurtured by teachers and family, and, she hopes, to follow in the footsteps of one of her heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Ryan has her eye on law school, and then the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, she hopes her artwork will help people see and be seen, “to recognize that we are all connected to each other,” she says. “This shared human experience is sacred. … We each shine our very brightest when we feel safe enough to live like ourselves and value the same in each other.”
You can see all of Ryan’s work on her website.
The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o