Walking down Manhattan Avenue, on the edge of the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, passersby are met with an enormous black-and-blue mural bearing the somber message, “I Just Want to Come Home.”
The mural, sprawled across the side of a grocery store, wasn’t created by a woke graffiti artist. It was painted by a team of young men in response to the complex relationship between men of color and police officers.
That mural is one of over 500 murals created by Groundswell, a New York City-based organization that unites artists, young people and communities. The murals serve as tools to enable social change, and they focus on topics like diversity, healthy living, conflict resolution and history.
“We’re not just painting things to make [them] really beautiful,” Robyne Walker Murphy, Groundswell’s executive director, told AM New York. “We’re speaking to issues like police brutality and sexual harassment. We’re also talking about possibility and celebrating the beauty in these communities, too.”
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Young people partner with artists to brainstorm and create murals in collaboration with communities.
The end result is as important as the creative process. Through planning, artists engage with the community about what topics they’re interested in. They research the history of the neighborhoods and ideas they want to explore. For example, with “I Just Want to Come Home,” the team of artists spoke with activists, city council members, residents and police officers before any work on the mural began.
After the research phase is over, an artist drafts a sketch and the design is reassessed. Finally, paint cans are opened and the painting takes place. Groundswell works with a variety of populations, including at-risk youth, incarcerated youth and women of color to help create the murals.
Each year, Groundswell works with around 800 young artists to create about 50 community projects. Since its founding in 1996, the organization has put its paintbrushes to over 500 New York walls.
The projects range from “Be the Change,” a mural that encourages elders to serve as mentors at Castle Hill Housing, a housing development in the Bronx, to a mural centered around food justice in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.
At Castle Hill Housing, where gang violence is common and buildings within the development have broken doors, windows and appliances, murals initially felt frivolous.
But the art ended up bringing the community together — something that home repairs wouldn’t typically do.
A group of artists between the ages of 16 and 24 met twice a week to transform their community center into a colorful painting of athletes, trees and clasped hands.
Sixteen-year-old Mousa Conteh helped paint the mural. “Everybody has dreams,” he told The New York Times. “This is going to most likely inspire them to keep doing what they’re doing.”
The mural is part of the 2016 Public Art/Public Housing program, launched in conjunction with Groundswell and the New York City Housing Authority, to create murals in five housing developments across New York. Groundswell also has other programs, like the Summer Leadership Institute, which employs young artists over the summer to create murals.
“For me, the most powerful aspect of this project has been seeing the excitement among everyone who has played a part in the mural as they put their personal stamp on the anonymous space of the community center,” Rob Krulak, the former interim executive director of Groundswell, told The New York Times. “This mural is an act of telling the world and each other about the importance of the people and activities that populate the center.”