As part of citywide initiative, students from 12 Bronx schools speak out on social justice issues through art

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On June 2, students from 12 Bronx public schools held an event at Revered T. Wendell Foster Park where their benches depicting gun violence, mental health, women’s rights, racism, bullying and LGBTQIA+ rights were on display.
Photos Jason Cohen

A citywide effort to teach students about social action issues through art culminated Thursday when schools unveiled their bench murals throughout the five boroughs.

On June 2, students from 12 Bronx public schools held an event at Revered T. Wendell Foster Park displaying benches depicting gun violence, mental health, women’s rights, racism, bullying and LGBTQIA+ rights for the public to see. The benches will remain there until September.

This is part of a NYC Parks summer exhibition entitled “CEI BENCHMARKS: Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change,” created by the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI).

Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change is a social-action arts program that inspires NYC public school students to speak out on major social issues they care about through creating large-scale, issue-based murals on benches for public display. This year, Benchmarks served more than 1,200 students in 32 schools citywide. Through this program, teaching artists worked with students to explore social activism, examine social-action art and artists, survey the history and practice of public art, select and research a critical social issue and formulate a message for social change and translate that message into a bench mural.

“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 Alexandra Leff, creator of CEI Benchmarks and CEI executive director of arts education. “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.”

The Bronx schools that participated were Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School 482; International School for Liberal Arts 342; Albert Einstein JHS 131; Dr. William Dorney PS 72; Donald Hertz PS 83; Philip J. Abinanti PS 108; Abram Stevens Hewitt PS 130; The Lorraine Hansberry Academy PS 214; Stephen D. McSweeney School P 721; PS/MS 194; South Bronx Academy for Applied Media 296 and High School for Energy and Technology 565.

The program began in 2019, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was on pause the past couple years. Tara Kilbane, senior program coordinator at CEI, told the Bronx Times the goal is to not only teach the kids about social issues, but to show them that their voices matter as well.

Among the students who had their benches on display were sixth graders Zaria Christie of South Bronx Academy for Applied Media 296 and Abisai Taceres of Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School 482. Christie and her classmates researched women’s rights and their bench features pictures of women of different races.

Christie, who has watched as states like Texas and Florida restrict abortion rights, is upset that politicians think they can control women’s bodies. She is proud at how the bench came out and hopes people like it.

“Our bench is about all of us,” she told the Bronx Times. “We made this bench for all types of women. The abortion problem that’s going on they (politicians) don’t want us to have the option as women to keep a baby or not. I think it is very important for all types of women to speak about what they want.”

Taceres and his classmates studied racism and created a bench that features different colored fists, which is a universal sign for fighting oppression. Taceres, who believes “all people are beautiful and equal,” said it is sad to see that racism is still prevalent in society. He doesn’t understand why people can’t accept everyone for who they are.

Abisai Taceres of Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School 482 and his classmates in front of their bench addressing racism.

Working on the mural made him realize that people of color are oftentimes not treated as well as white people.

“If us kids know racism exists, why are they (adults) not trying to stop it?” Taceres said.

The youngster expressed gratitude to his art teacher Leslie Day who provided guidance during the process. Day said watching the children learn about racism and unveil their bench was quite emotional.

She taught the kids about slavery, homelessness, racism and the infamous killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955. She said many kids in middle school don’t pay attention to the news, so she had them keep journals about current social issues.

“I don’t tell them what to think,” Day said. “I just give them the information and they make their own conclusions. I always tell them you are the next generation what are you going to do to change (the world)?”

Additional photos of the student benches:

Reach Jason Cohen at jasoncohen306@gmail.com or (646) 899-8058. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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