By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]
Students from 11 public schools in Queens painted benches in Cunningham Park with underlying social justice themed messages through a nonprofit seeking to innovate the city’s public school system.
The Benchmarks program, part of the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), engages students in social activism through the creation of public art. Some of the social issues that the students chose to focus on are racism, bullying, mental health awareness and respect for nature.
On May 31, over a hundred students unveiled and celebrated their creations, which will be on display in the park through August. They also gave speeches surrounding the social impact that they hope their work will bring.
“We hope that the bench encourages people to sit down and start talking to others while showing love and respect,” said Amaya Quayyum, an 11-year-old 5th grader from P.S. 191Q Mayflower School. “We are all the same across the nation and the potential for greatness is inside every one of us. Everyone can learn to respect, and respect is one of the greatest expressions of love and kindness.”
Tracy Dizon, a teaching artist at CEI, worked with students at four different schools to help them conceptualize and implement their ideas into mural style creations. With an art background in fashion design, she says that for both her and the students, mural making was a first time endeavor.
“Every class had a different charm to them,” said Dizon who witnessed the students in different schools gravitate to a social issue that they felt connected to.
Dizon says that the students at P.S. 31Q in Bayside were largely inspired by nature due to their proximity to various parks and the spring season. The fourth graders that she worked with twice a week since February chose “Love Nature” as the theme of their bench with polka dot elements.
The students were inspired by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese contemporary artist who is best known for her heavy use of polka dots in sculptures and art installations. Dizon says that Kusama was one of the many artists that she introduced the students to in the planning stages of the project.
“As the next generation we have to be stewards of nature,” said 10-year-old 4th grader Chloe Moy during the celebration. “The dots represent that we’re not alone in this world. We have to take care of each other and especially nature.”
For children, and even adults, thoughts on complex social issues can be difficult to express in words. The creation of art allows the space to process, learn and express inner feelings.
“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,” said Alexdra Leff, the executive director of arts education at CEI and creator of the Benchmarks program.
“Their messages for social change on a wide array of critical issues will inspire hundreds of thousands of people this summer.”