by Ariel Messman-Rucker
[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]oung, low-income and homeless artists from all over the Bay Area came together on March 24 to unveil a mural two years in the making. They celebrated its creation with the community that helped them achieve their vision.
The mural not only is a showcase for the artistic gifts of the young artists, but also makes a strong statement about social justice, exposing the way that poverty jeopardizes public health.
The young artists involved in creating the 10-by-20-feet mural are from Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA), a nonprofit job-training organization that uses art to better the lives of low-income and homeless youth, ages 16 to 25.
The mural, titled “Grow Healthy,” was made up of tiles hand-painted by youth from YSA and kids from all over Berkeley as a way to encourage young people to lead healthier lives and as a permanent statement about the health issues facing South Berkeley’s community.
Dying 20 years earlier
Sally Hindman, executive director of YSA, said there is a huge disparity between the health and lifespan of low-income and wealthier people in Berkeley, and this mural will stand as an enduring symbol of the need to close this gap.
“What it adds up to in terms of health injustice is that some people literally are dying 20 years earlier than other people,” Hindman said. “That’s just so bad and so we want to really bring that home and make sure that our community continues to really focus on that as something we need to battle.”
According to Berkeley’s Health Status Report from 1999, which studied death records from 1995 to 1997, life expectancy for residents of South Berkeley — which is 73 percent African American — is 62 to 64 years. In stark contrast, residents of the Berkeley hills — a wealthier and predominately white area — are expected to live an average of 80 to 84 years.
The City of Berkeley’s 2001 Health Status Report states that the overall adjusted death rate is three times greater for African Americans in Berkeley than for the white population.
“For the most part, the African American and white population suffer from the same ten leading causes of death, but African Americans in Berkeley still die at a younger age overall than whites in Berkeley,” the report stated.
YSA senior artist Victor Mavedzenge said that he felt it was important for the youth to get involved in raising awareness about the disparity in health between rich and poor people in Berkeley. The project also is designed to show people in the community how to lead healthy lives.
“I think when it comes to health, it is one of those things where the state or the adults within the society are not handling the health issue as seriously as it should be approached,” Mavedzenge said. “So making an event out of it and having a landmark for it signals that it is an important issue.”
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Max Anderson spoke at the event, as well as members of a South Berkeley neighborhood group and two local pediatricians.
“It seems like it is a rebirth of this community,” said Mayor Bates at the event. “The arts are thriving in this community, the arts are bringing back this community. They’re making it so much more beautiful and so much more wonderful to live here and be here.”
Councilman Anderson said, “Youth Spirit Artworks has really exploded in the community as a beacon for young people and their families to gather around and see hope for the future. Also, the artistic expression that’s embodied in the work that Youth Spirit does is a credit to this community in the biggest way.”
To create the mural, youth from YSA went into elementary schools in South Berkeley where they worked one on one with students, first by talking to them about making healthier choices in their lives, and then working with the kids to paint tiles for the mural.
Each student made a personal pledge to do one thing to live a healthier life and then painted that pledge on a tile, which was added to the mural so the entire community could be inspired by their efforts.
Young people from Youth Spirit Artworks went to Rosa Parks Elementary and Malcolm X Elementary, where more than 300 students painted tiles and made health pledges. They also led tile-painting workshops at more than a dozen other events and venues, setting up tables at sites ranging from health fairs to neighborhood street corners.
“They led tile-painting workshops for two years,” Hindman said of the hard work and long hours the youth put into the project. “On weekends, they’d be out leading tile workshops and they just worked their tails off at all these different events.”
The mural is covered in exuberant pledges that promote healthy living, with individual tiles making such vows as “plant a garden,” “stay healthy,” “stop the violence,” “fruit is cool,” “bike everyday,” “no more smoking,” “get out and play,” and “love life.”
“When you walk by the mural, it’s lovely, it’s beautiful, but when you stand in front of it and realize that each one is a very personal statement, together it’s quite powerful,” said Tony Wilkinson who lives in South Berkeley and volunteers his time with YSA whenever he can.
“It’s also a challenge to the community,” he said. “You know, how are you going to step up and make this possible?”
More than 100 young artists contributed to the mural and two young artists, Pancho Pescador and Alfonso Jaramillo, were hired to create the overall design.
The beautiful tile mural was mounted on the side of H & M Market & Liquor and is located on Fairview Street just west of Adeline Street in Berkeley. The H & M Market agreed to have the mural mounted on the outside of their store. Hindman believes this was a big coup for South Berkeley because YSA wants to challenge corner stores and liquor stores to begin carrying healthier food and become part of closing the dangerous gap in health between rich and poor communities.
The celebration of the inspirational mural also included speakers, a band and booths selling art made by YSA members, free health screening, health information, voter registration and free healthy snacks.
Young members of YSA spend time every week working in their commercial art studio and participating in community art projects. Each young artist receives job training, mentorship and a monthly stipend, as well as 50 percent of the profit made from selling their own artwork.
“We are an art job-training program, empowering youth to transform their lives through art,” Hindman said. “We’re about jobs and youth making money to get their lives where they want them to be.”
But YSA offers more than an art studio and job training. The youth are encouraged to become involved in social justice issues, taught leadership skills and the organization as a whole acts as a supportive community and safe haven for them.
“There’s no discrimination whatsoever,” said Toryanna Finely, 16. “You don’t have to know how to draw to come in. We’re trying to reach out to everybody and let everybody know that art saves lives.”
Diana Staros, 17, a junior at Oakland Tech, has only been a part of YSA for about a month, but she already feels accepted and included in their community. At the mural unveiling, she was selling artwork made by YSA artists, including a beautiful painting that she said was the very first piece she made.
“It’s really comfortable here,” she said. “You don’t have to be uptight like you’re at a job. Everybody is really friendly.”
The youth are very vocal about their love of the program and their dedication to the social justice causes it focuses on.
“I go home every night after I leave YSA with a smile on my face knowing that I did something good today,” said Adonis Pollard, 19, who helped to M.C. the mural unveiling. “I did something productive with my time, I didn’t just waste it all day.”
Pollard said that when he joined the organization six months ago, he never thought of himself as an artist, but now he is learning to draw and has taken on a leadership role within YSA.
He said, “We want youth to come, have food, eat, make money and do something constructive with their time, because on the streets, there’s nothing constructive out there. It’s nothing but chaos and mayhem.”
Youth Spirit Artworks
To learn more about YSA, visit their website by clicking here or call (510) 282-0396. The YSA art studio and store is located at 1769 Alcatraz Avenue, Berkeley, CA.