The way we choose to remember the dead has long fascinated Rochele Royster. An art therapist and former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Royster grew up during the AIDS crisis. She remembers having a visceral reaction to Cleve Jones’ The Quilt, an enormous tapestry memorializing people who died from AIDS. The Quilt, whose panels each memorialized a single victim, was initially larger than a football field, but grew to be more than 1 million square feet. Royster was struck by its vastness and how effectively it illustrated, for her, the human toll of the crisis. 

In October 1992, people visit the 21,000 panel Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C. Shayna Brennan/AP

She now thinks about The Quilt in relation to the makeshift memorials that pop up alongside highways and city streets every day in places like Chicago. She wonders whose stories are etched into the historical record through grand, highly publicized memorials; whose are remembered in makeshift altars strung together by grieving loved ones; and whose are forgotten altogether.

Rochele Royster with her family at the Dolls4Peace exhibit at the Hyde Park Arts Center. Courtesy of Rochele Royster

Since 2015, Royster has explored these questions and more through her Dolls4Peace project, which provides a space to celebrate the lives of people killed by gunfire. Community members create a doll that represents their loved one. Then, they discuss their life by describing the doll — and by extension their grief — with each other in a peace circle. The project grew into an exhibit that was once housed at the Hyde Park Art Center, displaying hundreds of dolls against a blank, white wall. It has since moved to New York, where Royster now works as an assistant professor at Syracuse University. 

For Royster, memorials like Dolls4Peace aren’t just public displays of celebration and love, but also sites where past, present, future, power, politics, and identity all collide. We spoke to her about the interplay of memory, grief, and death — and our collective human need to remember those we’ve lost. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Justin Agrelo: How did the idea for Dolls4Peace come to you? 

Rochele Royster: In 2015, I was teaching at Drake Elementary on the South Side, and a student in the school had been shot. I remember going in the next day, and being given a script by Chicago Public Schools saying, “This is horrible, there’s counseling available to students” — one person for 500 students. And I just thought: How inhumane this is? We’ve lost an important person in our lives. There’s an empty seat. Not only that, but this child had a big personality, and so his absence was extremely noticed by everybody.

We have to remember … It’s an act of resistance, really, to not be erased or have our pain erased.

When I went into my classroom, my students and I sat knee to knee, and I just held space for them to process the death of their friend. Also, at the time, in the media, we were seeing all these Black and brown bodies being shot. Laquan McDonald had just been killed. Sandra Bland had died. It was like we couldn’t catch a breath.

As we were sitting, I was wrapping this fabric, binding it, and one of the students asked, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m making a doll.” And they were like, well, can we make a doll for Kiyon Evans, the student who had been killed. Another student asked if they could make a doll for someone who had been shot the previous summer. Every kid in that classroom had lost someone to gun violence. And it was kind of that realization where this isn’t an isolated incident. This is not only impacting this community, but the greater Chicagoland community. Out of that circle of making a doll for the people we knew, it was like, let’s make a doll for everyone who’s been shot in Chicago up until this point.

What power do public memorials have on us individually and collectively? 

We don’t do grief well as a society, and memorials allow us to recognize and remember a person’s significance, or even the happening — the phenomenon that happened. It allows us to honor that person’s impact, but also to bring closure and heal collectively, and to pay attention to that grief, which is something I don’t think we allow ourselves to do on a regular human basis. Memorials give us a chance to do that. It’s a physical symbol that offers that validation, but also that community support that we all need to move through grief. 

Memorials are also important because we have to remember. We have to remember atrocities. We have to remember what happened. Otherwise, they will happen again. It’s important for us to keep those things close to us, so that we can restore and reclaim our power. It’s an act of resistance, really, to not be erased or have our pain erased.

And humans have done it forever, created altars and memorials for those that we have lost. Going back into those things that are in our core as humans and as cultural stewards, I think is really important. And just the power of coming together and saying we’re acknowledging this happened, and we’re going to make it. We’re going to be OK. And we’re going to continue keeping on for those who aren’t here.

How do memorials speak to larger systems of power?

I think there’s so much power that’s wrapped up in the memorials that are huge, and a lack of power that you see in these makeshift kinds of memorials in our communities. There’s the idea of, what stories do we keep and remember, and why? Which stories aren’t told, and why? What stories do we choose to forget, and why did we choose to forget them? 

It’s a fascinating look into our collective psyche. Around the time George Floyd was killed, we were really looking at what monuments we were paying homage to and then evaluating them, and thinking like, well, maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating this. There was an evolution of thought with these critical ideas around the politics and the power behind what we choose to memorialize and why. And whether or not that’s propaganda versus true, real remembrance. 

With Dolls4Peace, a lot of it started when the students were looking for the name of their friend who had been shot and killed. And when they found the article, it was just like, “young Black teen murdered in the alley, assumed gang affiliated.” And it wasn’t just this person’s story, it was so many stories of where a death had been covered, but it had just been mentioned like a statistic. Nothing around who the person was or how they lived. 

There was nothing for victims in Chicago. These people were important people, too. They had names. They had families. They had friends. They were more than just a number. The name needed to be said. I want to attach a name to this statistic to make it real, to make it important because this person’s life was more than that and so that reclaiming piece was important — reclaiming the neighborhood, reclaiming the community. 

Most of the workshops happened on the South and West sides of Chicago. A lot of times you hear South Side, and you immediately think about gun violence, you think about poverty, you think about all these kinds of deficits. But in some ways, this community was also celebrating the strengths that they possess. They were finding joy and happiness in each other through this act of making and creating with community. They were reclaiming that idea of the South Side, of our community, and what we have to offer.