Anyone commuting south from downtown Grand Rapids to This Space is Not Abandoned might notice the brightly colored edge of a wall, that as you approach, slowly reveals itself to be a monumental mural gracing the north wall of the warehouse. At the entrance of the space, there is a bronze plaque to the right hand side of the door. It states the following:
This mural represents the power of a community united around a goal – a goal of creating a piece of art that celebrates and embraces both the unity and diversity of our Latinx community in the Grandville Corridor, our barrio. Every individual, organization, and business transcended personal wants into a collective need. We made this together. We complete each other. We are whole.
The mural, as the plaque states, is a community mural; it was created by the community, for the community. Just as life cannot be summarized in a few sentences, the history of the mural cannot be captured in a paragraph on a plaque.
There is a lot to write about.
The silence of the teenagers in the first few weeks of meeting. The anxiety of meeting deadlines. The challenges of working with different people on different levels who have their own wants and needs. The endless meetings which made me want to pretend I was back in high school where I once forced myself to get sick in order to avoid giving a presentation.
Yet, I want to focus on the people, those that made the mural possible (for those that want a an intimate reading, then I suggest reading this piece).
The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and their S.O.L Peer Leaders developed the concept of the community mural. Starting in October of 2015, approximately thirty teens set out to bring a piece of art that told their story –the story of their heritage, their family, the bonds that unite the Grandville Corridor.
The Peer Leaders arranged and hosted two community forums to ensure that the voice of the barrio was represented. Let me write that once more, it was the responsibility of high school students to bring the community under one roof to share their ideas and receive feedback. The same students who struggle to remember their weekly Wednesday meetings at 4p. Their passion for the project was abundantly clear.
By February, the cohort of thirty became fifteen. However, these fifteen students were capable of debating and collaborating together. Not just their ideas, but also the ideas of the people who spoke at the forums. The mural that you see today is radically different from the three concepts the teens developed, different from the images that developed after the feedback they received.
Their voices were heard as a singular shout of pride and joy.
The Cook Arts Center and their youth leaders documented the process. How does a community mural come to be? They conducted interviews with long time residents. They heard the stories of the students and artists who helped with the project. They attempted to unravel the story behind the mural of 912 Grandville Avenue on the south side of the wall.
Beyond their investigative work, the students aided the S.O.L Peer Leaders whenever possible. They attended meetings, made suggestions to the concepts, helping in gathering feedback at the community forums, and more importantly, formed bonds with their peers.
The teens from the Cook Arts Center learned about videography, editing, and sound. They worked with the Community Media Center’s Elevating Voices project to learn these skills, capture the footage, and make a short documentary. Their film featuring the history and richness of two organizations working together can be seen At This Space is Not Abandoned.
The mural empowered the students, along with the leaders of the organization. It was their vision, their tireless efforts that made this piece of art possible. The contributions made by the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Cook Arts Center cannot be overlooked. This project was feasible because of their commitments.
Moving forward, their contribution must be seen as a symbol for any collaborative work. United, a community can impact the lives of youth, neighbors, and family members. A constant reminder that this space is not abandoned.
The mural is a powerful piece of community, heritage, and hope. The flags depict the people who represent the neighborhood. Fists erupting forward, showing strength. There are students at the top, reading, furthering their education. These images are bound together by the rays of a rising sun.
What do the students want you to take from this? What does the voice of the community say? Why is the American flag absent? Why, why, why?
We learn from questions, from the answers that others provide. While we may not agree with everyone’s perspective, we can find common ground, and understand it.
Understand them, learn their stories. Open up, and share yours as well.