LeaderSpark staff and students share the meaning behind the art

In 2016, a group of teenagers on the Youth Advisory Council of LeaderSpark, a Columbus-based youth leadership organization, attended 17 funerals of young people killed in the city.

“They weren't necessarily people that they knew, but they wanted to be able to show their compassion and their empathy,” said LeaderSpark Executive Director Kay Wilson. “[And] they noticed in their own personal situations, sometimes, if somebody was killed … it was the parents or cousins or distant family members that would talk about retaliation. … And so they wanted to be there also as peer mediators to be able to quell the situation.”

Some of those funerals took place at Wayne T. Lee Funeral Services in Olde Towne East, next door to the LeaderSpark office within HUB Community Development Corporation. So it was fitting that the kids helped create a mural representing rebirth and growth on the wall facing the funeral home.

“They tried to bury us but they didn't know we were seeds” is printed on the building in distinct, green, 3-D letters, surrounded by leaves. The council, consisting of 18 young people, brainstormed phrase and image ideas. They then presented them to local graphic designer Patrick Torres and architectural designer Julie Martin, who worked on the mural, which was completed in mid-November.

To LeaderSpark program manager Solomon Garner, the phrase was a perfect representation of the youths' response to their challenging environment. “A lot of them have seen some traumatic events … and are surrounded by violence,” said Garner, who will speak about the mural as part of the “Conversations & Coffee” series at Columbus Cultural Arts Center on Thursday, Jan. 11. “Yet they're still standing. They're still going strong. They're still walking around with smiles on their faces.”

“I could relate to [the message] because when I was 13 or 14, I was going through depression,” said Youth Advisory Councilmember Rheanya Pryor, 15. “People judged me. … I just really wanted to be alone.”

Pryor said she began opening up and working harder in school. “Everybody's going to judge you,” she continued. “But you can show them … you can grow.”

“Never give up” is the directive Youth Advisory Councilmember Raiona Williams, 16, would want others to take away from the mural. “Never let somebody have so much power over you where you feel like you can't accomplish something. … Do things at your own pace [and] don't let somebody's chapter 19 make your chapter seven feel like you're not going anywhere.”

It's important that young people are allowed to provide input, stressed Wilson, who noticed they were being left out of city initiatives to address the challenges they faced. “It seemed like we all decided to have these meetings during school when the kids could not be there,” she said. “We need to hear from them [about] what they want.”

In response, the Youth Advisory Council interviewed other young people and developed a white paper, “Youth Truth,” which they presented directly to Mayor Andrew Ginther in 2016. The document outlined major issues they wanted to tackle, including job readiness, substance abuse, safety, trauma and mental health.

“People don't know the repercussions [and] the mental health issues that we have, especially African-American males,” Wilson said, noting the effects of recent police-involved killings on younger adolescents. “You see a picture of a black boy laying in the middle of the street with a sheet over him. You go to school [and] you're in the office and they have CNN on [and] you see a picture of a black boy with a sheet over him. You come home [and] your parents are watching the news [and] you see a picture of a black boy with a sheet over him. To them … it's every black boy on every street.”

Like the white paper, the mural is another way for the young people to advocate for themselves, and the artists involved were careful to listen, rather than approach the project as an addition to the neighborhood.

“I think a lot of people view public art like the first part of a wave of development,” Martin said. “It's like this is an artifact of who the people are and what is happening here already.”

“The most rewarding part of the entire experience was getting to meet the people in the neighborhood,” said Torres, who mentioned residents would stop by and pull him off the ladder to discuss the piece. “At that point it seemed like we were handing that project over to the people in Olde Towne East.”

Wilson was especially moved by the young people, who invited their friends along to help. “It was just so beautiful because … we had African-American kids, we had Latino kids out there, we had some Asian kids out here [and] we had Caucasian kids out there,” she said. “It brought them together.”

“I really do believe the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,'” Garner said. “One of our biggest goals was really getting the community out there for the mural … [to] show the youth people really do care.”