During the summer of 2014 YSA youth built a mural at the request of a local business owner. She had approached YSA about creating the mural because one of her walls kept getting tagged. The challenge was to design a mural about African American female beauty and put the project up on the wall within two weeks.
Because of the timing requirements, a lead artist created the first design. Most of the youth had never made a mural. They also did not know all the technical skills to draw on a large scale. It made logical sense to have the lead artist create a premise for the project. A post-survey would later confirm:
• All of the participating youth painted a mural for the first time.
• All reported learning at least one new skill: painting, stenciling, or large-scale art design.
The first day, the youth started working on painting the sketch on the wall. As the week progressed, most of the youth felt unhappy with the project. The mural was supposed to be about African American beauty, yet many of the youth of color felt this was not the case. They did not know Josephine Baker, a key subject in the proposed design. Instead, they envisioned Lauryn Hill, with her big afro, as an icon for African American beauty.
Their frustrations came out in a diversity training session that accompanied the project. YSA offers special trainings every Friday, and this one happened to provide the atmosphere for discussions about culture in the context of the mural. Fridays are also a time when YSA has youth empowerment meetings. These meetings are a chance for youth to talk about what is happening at YSA and how they would like it to be different. The hope is to give youth a space to more effectively use their voice. From a management perspective, these meetings are also intended to help youth believe in a democratic system that is visible, inclusive and responsive. The youth noticed: “The biggest challenge was our voices not being heard but that was fixed.”
YSA agreed to follow the youth’s input. The very next week, mural team started a new project on the wall. The prints of Josephine Baker were wiped. In their place, the youth put up a portrait resembling Lauryn Hill. Around the portrait, the youth painted African masks. They also put up sayings about beauty, strength, and gratitude. All of this was done in one week.
The outcome was a mural with images that are poorly sized and uses disjointed colors, as well as a composition that does not, from a traditionally artistic standpoint, really fit. However, the youth feel they created something that fits their definition of African American beauty. They also feel proud of the process that was used to create the final product.
When people are motivated, beauty shows. The final product was last minute. However, it’s beautiful because the youth all did it. We trusted each other. You got to let everyone leave their mark.
By the youth’s criteria, the mural is a success. To date, the YSA mural also remains untagged, a measure of success for the business owner.
The youth seem to recognize they learned a lot from feeling frustrated. They could have balled up all that anger and let it boil inside. Instead, they talked about their issues and they saw results. This taught youth about self-advocacy and effective communication: “My favorite lesson was to voice opinion.”
YSA has a goal to help youth feel empowered, instead of marginalized by their race, class, age, and other personal factors beyond their control. Youth need a space to embrace who they are, and learn resilience against barriers that come in their way. YSA hopes to incorporate systematic change by leading from the youth’s opinions. If youth can see a small nonprofit as being fair and equal, it may inspire these same youth to hope and want to work towards a more inclusive, responsive, and transparent democracy within other areas of our nation. From the perspective of civic leadership, the mural effectively taught youth to constructively use their voice and appreciate they do have the power to create change.