On Friday February 27, I attended a keynote address by Jane Golden, Director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, at the Second Conference of Temple University’s Arts and Quality of Life Research Center. This was the third time I heard her talk about the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program that she started 25 years ago. Again, I walked away deeply inspired by her actions, accomplishments, passion, and energy.
Jane was a mural artist in LA when she was called to the city of Philadelphia in the eighties to work for the Anti-Graffiti Network. Graffiti had become an uncontrollable issue in the city and efforts to reduce the defacing of buildings with graffiti had been unsuccessful. The Anti-Graffiti Network was established to attack the graffiti crime with an innovative plan: rather than persecuting graffiti gangs, they would enlist them to help beautify the city by creating murals in partnership with the city. After learning more about the highly organized nature of these gangs, Jane knew she was facing a very difficult, if not impossible, task. However, she immediately became aware of the enormous artistic talent these graffiti artists had, as well as of their hunger to learn about and create art. Because of her respect for their artistic skills, Jane was able to gain their trust and they agreed to work with her, even though they were no longer allowed to use spray paint. In partnership with community residents, they developed ideas and created beautiful murals on open walls in the community (often on abandoned lots). As the program grew and funding increased, Jane was able to invite famous mural artists to work with the Mural Arts Program to create more complex works of art. The Anti-Graffiti Network was renamed the Mural Arts Program and today, the Mural Arts Program has completed 3005 murals throughout the city of Philadelphia, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “City of Murals.” The murals include artwork on open walls of vacant lots, school building, police stations, community buildings, and other large properties that are a sore to the eye. Creating the murals involves a lengthy planning process with the community: “Often, the community meetings we facilitate to discuss mural themes also serve as a safe and constructive outlet for community members to express concerns, tensions or aesthetics related to subjects that go beyond mural-making. When opportunities arise, our staff works with community organizations to create programming like workshops, symposia and other special events pertinent to community concerns related to the mural theme” (www.muralarts.org). The murals bring together diverse community members who may have conflicting perspectives and value systems. They function as a catalyst for change, revitalization, and hope in a community. Although Jane now works with a large group of staff members, she still is the driving force behind all of these murals. As she speaks about these murals, even those who were created many years ago, you can sense her continued commitment to each of the communities and the quality of life of the residents.
In her keynote, she stated that the Anti-Graffiti Network could have chosen to create a committee to talk about the profound issues of graffiti in the city. Instead, she said, they understood that action rather than words was needed. For all of these murals, it was the engagement in the art making that caused change and brought renewed hope. Empowerment through participatory action is key: from selecting a theme and developing the design to the actual painting of the mural, community members are involved in every step of the way…acting and interacting through the arts.
On my way home from the conference, I continued to reflect on the keynote and why I felt so inspired by this woman. I believe it was her determination and perseverance to bring about change; her deep belief that change is possible, no matter what; her belief that engagement in the arts empowers the young people from Philadelphia to believe in themselves and to become active and responsible participants in their communities. Many of us would have never dared to begin the mural art projects that took place in neighborhoods with rivaling resident groups and long histories of hatred and conflict. Many told Jane that she would never succeed. But Jane Golden believed in the power of the arts – she believed that the arts truly can build bridges and gateways and, in every instance, she succeeded. At this time in history, the American people look at President Obama for much needed change. Although many claim that too much hope is being projected onto Barack Obama, I am convinced that this hope will bring change and that these changes, in turn, will create renewed hope and determination. And so as I continue my drive home along the many cars with Obama stickers and decals, my thoughts linger to one of the music therapy community programs that are offered through the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center: Hear Our Voices. This is a 14-week songwriting program for at-risk youth who live in a section of Philadelphia that is marked by great poverty and high crime rates. Each week, elementary school aged children from diverse cultural backgrounds come together and create, under guidance of two excellent music therapists, Mike Viega and Scott MacDonald, songs about their lives and their community. In their songs, they explore issues of poverty, violence, lack of education, as well as emphasize the importance of love, community, hope, and the need for change. Their songs contain the complexity of their daily experiences while, at the same time, express rather straight forward but insightful messages to the world. Just a couple of weeks ago, a group of 1st and 2nd graders wrote a song to President Obama:
we've got something to say
We want change in the world
Please help us bring change to the world
We can change bad things
into good things
so all those bad people
can change to good people
And no one will steal anymore
The song starts in a slow gospel style but then transitions into a faster tempo with lots of percussive energy. I see in these children the same level of determination and hope that I feel when I hear Jane Golden speak about her Mural Arts Program. They know what changes are needed in their community and believe that, if we all work together, change is possible. If I did not know about the enormous success of the Mural Arts Program, I am sure I would have thought Jane to be idealistic and naïve for her ideas for change in Philadelphia – and yes, she told us that she has been called naïve on more occasions than she can recall. Whereas one could view the children’s messages idealistic and naïve, I like to think of them as messages of belief, hope and empowerment.
At the end of the 14-week songwriting cycle, a CD is created and a CD release party is organized in the community. The creation of the CD and its release party – which has attracted a good amount of media attention - has proven to be equally important as the songwriting process to the children. Sharing their songs with the larger community truly makes these kids believe that their voices are being heard and their messages are getting out there. Whether their participation in this songwriting program will have a long-lasting effect on their agency in the world through increased self-confidence and self-efficacy, I do not know. But I do know that the songwriting sessions with Mr Mike and Mr Scott – as the kids call them - have had a great impact on the kids and their families at this very moment in time. These kids were not gathered to just talk about their lives and their communities; they created songs with others and through this creative act, developed ideas and solutions. I hope that these experiences will stay with them for a while and result in continued hope for and belief in change.
So if you ever visit Philadelphia, make sure to take a Mural Arts Program tour. I promise that the murals will provide you with inspiration and hope for change.
Bradt, Joke (2009). Hope is Change. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colbradt090309