Queens Students Illuminate Social Issues with Vibrant Bench Murals at Juniper Valley Park

By MOHAMED FARGHALY mfarghaly@queensledger.com

Students from Queens public schools showcased socially conscious bench murals at Juniper Valley Park, addressing critical topics like gun violence and climate change. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

In a display of artistic activism, students from public schools across Queens took center stage at Juniper Valley Park on May 30, unveiling their socially conscious bench murals that tackle pressing community issues. Under the gray skies of Thursday morning, the event took place on the circular path west of the bocce court, drawing attention to critical topics such as gun violence, climate change, neurodiversity, and housing rights.

Part of a citywide summer exhibition organized by NYC Parks, the initiative was spearheaded by The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), under the banner of “CEI BENCHMARKS: Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change” program. The benches, adorned with vibrant murals, serve as poignant canvases for the voices of tomorrow’s leaders, reflecting a commitment to social justice and civic engagement.

Among the participating schools were P.S. 124 Osmond A. Church, M.S. 137 America’s School of Heroes, J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom, and P.S. 277 The Riverview School – High School, each contributing their unique perspectives to the public discourse.

“The benches are part of our Benchmarks program that showcases social issues, so students, they work with their teaching artists on their benches and they figure out a social issue that’s close to their heart, or that they feel that people need to be made aware of, and they put those social issues in art and then transfers them to the benches,” Tia Walker, Senior Program Manager at CEI said. “So the social issues range from things like housing and climate, housing, bullying, climate change, gender inequality, and various other things.”

The CEI BENCHMARKS program, which engaged over 1,000 students from thirty schools citywide this year, provided a structured platform for students to delve into social activism and express their concerns through art. By aligning with state learning standards and emphasizing social-emotional learning, the initiative empowers students to become agents of change in their communities.

Spearheaded by The Center for Educational Innovation, the initiative provided a platform for over 1,000 students to express their concerns through art. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

“In this current climate, young people need a public platform to express themselves on current social issues in a constructive, creative and powerful way, so they can join the conversation and make a difference in our world. We are so proud of our students who have confronted major social issues through their beautiful and powerful bench murals. Their messages for social change on a wide array of critical issues will inspire hundreds of thousands of people this summer in our citywide parks exhibition,” said Alexandra Leff, Creator of CEI Benchmarks and CEI Executive Director of Arts Education. 

Unisha Chetram, an eighth-grader from M.S 137 America’s Scholastic’s of Heroes participating in the venture, expresses the significance of their bench installation project. She highlights the collaborative effort between classes, focusing on addressing issues of inadequate housing and gun violence, which they feel passionately about. Unisha emphasizes the importance of shedding light on these critical issues, particularly given the ongoing challenges faced in New York. She underscores the urgent need for action, citing the devastating impact of gun violence and the struggles of individuals living paycheck to paycheck, often leading to homelessness. Through their artful benches, Unisha and her peers aim to raise awareness and spark dialogue around these pressing societal concerns.

“Our bench is a pretty special message that we are sharing to the world,” Chetram said. “It was important to kind of display these benches in what we think is very important because a lot of people are dying every day due to gun violence. And there’s just a lot of people who can’t live paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes they have problems like health problems and stuff and they have to spend money on them. And that could maybe get them on the streets and it’s just a very big problem.” 

Eighth grader Johnathan Rambally explains that the purpose of their presence is to promote their benches, intending to educate New Yorkers about the pressing issues in their city. He describes their involvement in the program as stemming from a collective recognition of the prevalent challenges facing New York. With a focus on gun violence and inadequate housing, Johnathan and his peers aimed to address the most prominent issues affecting their community through their bench project.

Student Hanah Sbatri shares her involvement in the program, stating that her school’s collective desire to make a difference led to their participation in creating the bench. She emphasizes the passion her peers and she felt towards the chosen topic, contributing ideas to the project. The process took a few months due to limited class time, but the dedication remained steadfast. Hanah underscores the importance of such projects, stressing the need to address overlooked issues to foster a safer community. She concludes by expressing her commitment to making a positive impact through their efforts.

“I think it’s important for us to do such a project because it’s very overlooked, because we really want to create a safer community but in order to do that, we need to get rid of the things that are causing harm to us,” Sbatri said. 

Their powerful messages aim to inspire change and foster dialogue across New York City, as the benches rotate through parks in each borough throughout the summer. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

The unveiling at Juniper Valley Park follows a Citywide Event on May 23 at Randall’s Island, where all thirty social-action benches were first revealed. From June to August, these thought-provoking installations will rotate through parks in each borough, continuing to spark conversations and inspire action across the city.

“These public artworks beautify our diverse neighborhoods, foster dialogue about pressing matters, and exemplify our core values of acceptance, inclusivity, and communal care,” said Eric Adams, Mayor of New York City. “The next generation of New Yorkers should always pave new pathways to fairness and equality and I am proud to see you have already undertaken this fundamental responsibility. Today, I commend your artistic skills, commitment to social justice, and impactful contributions to civic life in our global city.”

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