The world has spent the last five months twisting and contorting itself into a new normal, and we adults have spent much of that time glued to our televisions and phones. The news consumes conversations with our families, friends, and colleagues, but the most vulnerable among us — children — rarely get a word in. Yesterday, in Union Square, middle schoolers from all five boroughs gathered to unveil a citywide public art project that they’ll use to register their concerns about the state of humanity, and engage with those of us who often forget to ask what they think.
Just under 400 students from 10 public schools (two in each borough) worked for months to design, sketch, and paint classic school cafeteria tables with murals that illustrate social issues selected by the students themselves. The program, which works in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, is organized by LEAP, a forty-year-old nonprofit arts program that brings professional artists and art educators into New York City public schools to teach. For the tenth year, LEAP will install the cafeteria tables in public parks across the city from June to August, where the public will be invited to sit and talk around them.
“In cafeterias, kids hang out and talk, so to bring that symbol of conversation to parks would be the best way to bring their message into the community,” said Alexandra Leff, director of LEAP’s public art program. The program pairs students with teaching artists who serve as mentors as the children identify a social issue unique to their schools and neighborhood, and decide how best to engage their communities in talking about — and solving — the problems.
The kids did not hold back. Students in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan focused on child abuse, domestic violence, gender inequality, animal abuse, and diversity and inclusion. Other students from I.S. 25 in South Richmond, Staten Island, used acrylic paint and oil-based paint markers to draw a mural addressing climate change, a risk that is perhaps more potent for them than for their peers anywhere else in the city.
At I.S. 219 New Venture School in Claremont Village in the Bronx, students chose an issue that remains tragically close to home: gun violence. Their table, which will be displayed in Claremont Park at a gazebo near the Mount Eden Parkway and Monroe Avenue entrance, also addressed drug abuse and bullying.
“We talked about the stuff going on in our area and decided on those three conflicts. Because all these things happen, you can’t trust people outside,” said Ashley Cortorreal, 13. “You can’t be outside by yourself because there could be a gun shooting out of nowhere, and that affects my everyday life. I’m just trying to come to school and leave school. I’m just trying to have fun.”
Joy Langer, who worked with students from the New Venture School as a teaching artist for LEAP, explained that the daily news cycle out of Washington, D.C., didn’t deeply factor into their art. “The Bronx has some tough neighborhoods. These kids have tough lives,” she said. “I think the choice of gun violence — it’s so in their faces that they didn’t talk about politics or the election. They didn’t talk about these more global issues.”
But it was clear that the young artists were very much attuned to local political debates. One student created a sketch of the Wall Street bull as a symbol of bullying, and State Street’s controversial Fearless Girl statue as a symbol of triumph. His design made the final cut. And students say that while bullying is definitely a school issue, it reverberates far beyond classroom walls, too.
“A lot of people say he’s being racist and trying to kick people out [of the country],” Nicole Frias, 12, a student at New Venture School, said of President Donald Trump. She pointed out that just like bullies at school, “he judges them because of their skin color and not for who they are. I’ve been watching the news more.”
Noribel Santana, 11, also a student at New Venture School, said she hopes that people will gather around their table to talk about issues facing their borough, and the country at large. But mostly, she hopes people will show up ready to listen. “Students of all ages should talk freely about how they feel about [political] situations, because we have feelings and emotions just like adults do.”
Frias echoed that hope. “Most kids feel like when adults do something, we have to pay for it,” she said. “We come out harmed or hurt. We did this [art project] so adults can see what ways they’re injuring kids.”
For Andrew Perez, 12, from New Venture School, the goal is to turn dialogue into action. “Maybe word can get out and help New York City, the Bronx, and the state as a whole,” he said.
Langer, his teacher, thinks they have a pretty good shot: “I think all these tables have a little bit of hope sprinkled on them,” she said.