Bright Idea: Painting the Bigger Picture at a Washington, DC, Residential Program

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Photograph of LAYC mural

If you could peek through the third-floor window of a narrow townhouse in Washington, DC, you’d see exposed bricks, a broken wall, and beyond that a young man standing on a cliff above crashing waves. To the left, you’d make out a poem describing the young man’s journey from uncertainty to possibility. “I'm lost in an ocean of madness/In the desert of hesitation,” the verse begins. Look back to the young man: He gazes toward the sun, considering his possibilities. The lines end with the speaker getting ready “To let the sunlight come through/And show me/It was just my imagination.” With preparation and motivation, he will be able to complete the journey.

The room you’re peeping into belongs to a transitional living program for young men, run by DC’s Latin American Youth Center. The poem was written by a former resident of the program. And the illustration of wall, youth, ocean and sun emerged from youth and staff’s wish to  spruce up the  building’s attic lounge. Through projects like this mural, LAYC and other youth programs around the country are employing poetry, graffiti, music and other arts to create outlets for youth to express themselves when they lack other means to do so.

Once they had agreed that a mural based on the poem would liven things up, a group of youth and staff set about to translate the poem into a small drawing, which was then recreated full-size on the wall of the attic. To bring the project to fruition, youth took on the roles of artist, painter, manager (the person who oversaw the project, making sure each person carried out his role efficiently) and tracker (the person who assisted the manager, making sure deadlines were met and each person met set goals on time). Staff members supported and encouraged them every step of the way, says Sheila Mirza, an LAYC staffer who took part in the effort.

Supplies for the mural were purchased with program funds already set aside for art and technology. All told, the LAYC mural process took about six months from start to finish because of schedule changes, staff and resident’s busy schedules, and other factors beyond the program’s control, like illness, program emergencies and trainings.

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