As a professional artist and art activist I have had the great privilege of working with children in Milwaukee-area schools. I have never seen my role solely working with youth to complete an art project—I think about the expectations of what I can bring and the impact that can have long-term results. It’s no coincidence; most of the schools I’ve worked in have been in the inner-city. But, I’m ok with that. It’s important for our youth to see a face that that looks like theirs; a positive mentor and role model encouraging them to have goals and complete them.
In a recent artist residency I was given the freedom to choose the art project that the students would work on. Because of where the school was located I immediately knew what I wanted to do. They would create two murals. The day I met the 3rd and 4th graders I asked two questions. First, “What are the things you like about your neighborhood?” Answers included family gatherings, being with friends, community working together, neighborhood cleanups, and playing. Great! This is the first mural. Secondly, “What are some of the things you dislike about your neighborhood?” (pause) Drive-by’s, shootings, crime…one child said, “My cousin got shot while we were walking down the street together.” A little girl said, “They shot my dog!” “The Po-Po are killing black people!” (DEEP BREATH) Ok, this is would be the second mural.
In the midst of the activities a burning question I wrestled with was, “What impact will the violent acts against black youth have on their future outlook and how does this shape the way they live in the present?” There are a lot of youth are suffering from PTSD and other emotional issues—and, unfortunately the resulting failure to process and cope with what’s going on around them perpetuates further violence. After the two lists were completed I asked them to draw pictures of both good and bad neighborhoods because I wanted to capture their ideas and feelings. If you saw the drawings, you would laugh and cry at the same time. Pictures of good neighborhood vibes showed cookouts, neighbors in the yard, block cleanups, baseball games. Pictures of what they didn’t like showed people getting robbed, beat up, shot, pictures of guns—all from 8- and 9-year olds. Now it’s bad enough having to grow up in this environment BUT what’s a thousand times worse is seeing the barrage of police murders and violence against blacks. What protection is available when those in authority who should be our protectors are free to kill black people at-will?
Focusing on the things they liked in their neighborhood helped reaffirm that youth of color do have dreams, aspirations, expectations, and future outlook. At the same time, I was careful to not dismiss the reality of the adverse experiences they often face. Because of this project, these youth were given the freedom to openly express their thoughts and emotions through dialog, writing, and making art. I believe this opportunity may not have been afforded them if they had not collaborated with an artist-in-residence; one who believes in investing in and building community toward change. This kind of change serves to erase the negative perceptions and apathy shown toward our black youth. This is how their future will be realized today.