Creating a Groundswell in Brooklyn

“Informed, Empowered,” a Groundswell mural at 3rd and 23rd in Sunset Park. Photo by Nick Childers.

At the time of his arrest in January 2011, James was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. The charge? Possession of marijuana.

Since this was his first arrest, after being booked James was taken to the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the nation’s first multi-jurisdictional, neighborhood-based court. Founded in 2000, the Court offers social services alongside punishment. James reports that the process began with an evaluation by staff of the Adolescent Diversion Program.

“A panel of teen peers reviewed my case,” he says. “I had to tell them about my history and about my family. When they asked me what I was interested in, I said art. Looking back, I know I was lucky and I’m really glad that they gave me the benefit of the doubt and sent me to the Groundswell Community Mural Project to do my service.”

Giving kids like James a second chance is second nature to the staff at Groundswell. The website of the 16-year-old organization (www.groundswellmural.org) boasts that the Gowanus-based group strives to “beautify neighborhoods, engage youth in societal and personal transformation, and give expression to ideas and perspectives that are underrepresented in the public dialogue.”

Their murals—more than 300 have been created since 1996—have tackled a range of weighty subjects: cyber stalking and bullying; dating and domestic violence; human rights; militarism; police brutality; racism; restorative justice; and traffic safety, among them. But regardless of theme the creative process always turns on the same reflexive question: How can a public art project support a specific community organizing agenda?

Groundswell partners with local organizations and city agencies throughout the five boroughs and recruits students—or, in some cases, accepts court referrals—to work with professional artists. The projects run year-round, after-school during the academic year and for seven weeks during the summer. Each July and August six large-scale murals are created by between 80 and 100 teens. Fifteen artists—some of them Groundswell alumni and all of them formally trained painters, sculptors, or graphic designers—serve as mentors and teachers.

On a balmy March afternoon, artists Yana Dimitrova and Frank Parga are working with 17 boys and girls who are painting a canvas that will eventually cover a courtroom wall in the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The design depicts three kids with the scales of justice in the background. The words “hope” and “change” hang in the balance.

Fabio Gomez, 17, a sophomore at the Urban Assembly of Music and Art in DUMBO, is working on this mural. Gomez came to Groundswell in September at the suggestion of his art teacher. “I asked if there were any programs that could lead to scholarships for art because I need a scholarship to go to college,” he says. “Groundswell is helping me create a portfolio that I can use to apply.”

The idea for the courthouse mural came from brainstorming, Gomez continues. “We started by doing research on Red Hook. We went to the Court and talked to kids. We researched the area’s crime level, which is high, but we also saw that the system typically finds it easier to put people in jail rather than try to help them. Community courts are different. They find out why you do stuff like sell drugs or not go to school. We talked a lot and decided we wanted the mural to be warm and welcoming and show the faces of youth.”

Fanta Conde, a 16-year-old junior at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in downtown Brooklyn, is also working on the mural. An aspiring lawyer, Conde says that she especially enjoys the research and discussions that precede the design phase. “After we did the research we talked and decided not to use solid colors on the faces of the kids,” she continues. “We didn’t want them to be black, white, Asian, or Arabic, so each face is multicolored,” a subtle challenge to stereotypes about the racial identity of youthful offenders.

This appeals to Thomas Torchio, a senior at Acorn Community High School, who describes mural making as inspiring, educational, and fun. Soft-spoken and serious, he trumpets both the chance to make art and the respite Groundswell offers. “I love being here because I get to meet people who are different from what I’m used to. I live in an impoverished community, in the projects in Bed-Stuy, with violence everywhere,” he says. “Here there are creative minds and positivity. That’s really attractive to me. Plus, painting is really calming—and it feels free-spirited.”

“The kids we attract are often the outcasts,” says Patrick Dougher, Groundswell’s Program Director. “These are the kids who’ve gone off the beaten path. They’re not the athletes. They don’t hang out on the corner. They are the artists, the kids who are on the fringes, with their own kind of hipness. They’re a special lot and they need a safe space to be joyous. When they work with talented, dedicated, socially-conscious artists who really care about them, they become empowered.”

And empowerment, of course, is what it’s all about. Amy Sananman founded Groundswell in 1996. “I was working as an organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and was interested in community development and the intersection of art, culture, and democratic social change,” she says. “A lot of incredible people were working to create affordable housing for themselves and their neighbors. The president of a building I was involved with at 76 Richardson Street in Williamsburg was a Mexican immigrant whose son had an art teacher at El Puente Academy named Joe Matunis. Joe is an incredible muralist. After I told the building president about my interest in art he introduced me to Joe.”

Months of meetings between Sananman, Matunis, and kids from the Richardson Street building eventually led to planning for, and creation of, a mural called “The Golden Birdcage” on a wall at the Shufra Chocolate Factory. “There’s a Mexican song that describes the U.S. as a golden birdcage,” Sananman explains. “The kids from the building were the ones who designed the mural. Most of them had been born in Mexico but were now the translators of the world for older relatives. They understood the sacrifices their parents had made to migrate, as well as the isolation they felt as immigrants, and wanted to depict these realities.”

Sananman says that everyone involved found the project energizing. “There was a magic that happened,” she laughs. “The factory was run by Hasidim and to see the Hasidic men bringing chocolate to Mexican-American kids was so positive. It also brought people from all over the neighborhood out to talk to one another.”

In fact, by the time “The Golden Birdcage” was completed, Sananman was so smitten with mural making that she assembled a group of activists, artists, educators, and attorneys to talk about forming an organization to create more public art. Together they formed what became the Groundswell Community Mural Project. Still, it took seven years, until 2003, for them to acquire the funding to secure an office and hire staff. In the interim, Groundswell worked on a project-by-project basis. A memorial to honor Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr.—an unarmed 13-year-old Brooklyn boy who was shot by police in 1994—and collaboration with the Bronx-based Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice were among their earliest efforts.

Since then, Groundswell has grown into a nearly $1 million a year program. Major funding comes from the Rockefeller Cultural Innovation Fund, the Lambent and Surdna Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition, approximately one-quarter of their annual budget comes from community partners who are asked to pay half the fees for each joint venture.

While most projects involve mural making—Groundswell’s raison d’être—as the group evolves, new art forms have begun to enter their repertoire. “At our 2011 strategic retreat women and technology came up as a possible topic for a mural,” Sharon Polli, Director of Development and Communications reports. “As the process unfolded we decided to focus on healthy relationships and dating violence and partnered with Day One, a group whose mission is ending dating abuse amongst teenagers. Although our strength is murals we wanted to do a digital project. The all-female group developed a website and learned Adobe Illustrator and other software applications. They created a blog and designed posters with information about financial, emotional, physical, and technological abuse that we distributed to schools during National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month this February. Each poster has a QR code so we can track how many people go to the blog or click for more information.”

 This summer a boys-only project will focus on role models and male stereotypes.

James, the court-referred youth who came to Groundswell last January, hopes to be part of this effort. “After I did my mandated service I wanted to do more with Groundswell so I volunteered on a mosaic for two or three months. I then took part in the summer program and worked on a traffic safety mural. I learned a lot about working with a team and expanded my horizons about different types of art. Groundswell has helped me build a portfolio and develop my skills. I am very grateful.”

Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader

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