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Stuck inside like so many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Lab Artist-in-Residence Dorothy Burge doesn’t have to travel far to see a problem that she wants to help fix. From her balcony overlooking a busy street in Hyde Park, Dorothy has been noticing the uncovered faces down below.

“What I see is that particularly young African Americans in their teens and twenties are not wearing a mask,” she says. “As someone who believes that art can make an impact I thought, ‘If I could create a mask that looks cool and can become something of a fad, then people would start to wear masks more.’”

Dorothy points out that low-income communities of color are among the hardest hit by the virus. The effects are being felt within Dorothy’s own networks, including in the quilting community. “We’ve lost 14 members of the Women of Color Quilters Network already,” she says.

Dorothy’s original project as the Lab’s Artist-in-Residence had been to do a series of quilts in which she asked people to send six-word messages to survivors of police torture and to imagine what a just America would look like. But when the pandemic upended life as we know it, she thought of another project: attractive, high-quality, reusable masks for survivors of police torture.

All of Dorothy’s masks have a pocket to hold a filter, and she includes ten disposable filters with every mask when she mails them.  

“My masks have to be something that people will say, ‘That’s something that I want to wear when I go out,’” she says. “I’ve been very particular about the fabric choice and the style.”

Survivors and other community members who receive a mask from Dorothy will find one other thing in their packages. Dorothy plans to include a postcard with a picture of herself wearing one of her masks (shown below) on one side and one of two poems on the other: either Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” or an excerpt from Maya Angalou’s “The Mask.”

Dorothy says both of these poems have taken on new meaning in light of COVID-19: “As African Americans, we’ve been wearing masks since we arrived here. We have always had to pretend that things were going well when they weren’t. We’ve always had to suck it up at our places of employment and other places that were critical to our survival. In dealing with American power structures, we’ve always had to wear the mask—to pretend that everything was okay.”

“But as it says in Maya Angalou’s poem, this is part of the reason we survived, so I’m thankful to our ancestors that they wore the mask. What I’m saying to all of us now is, ‘This is a time when we’re being called to wear a different kind of mask.’”


Dorothy wearing one of her masks. Photo courtesy of the artist.