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Reclaiming their city one brush stroke at a time

Holiday Fund grant provides young East Palo Alto artists tools to foster neighborhood change

From left, Jocelyn Hernandez, Alejandro Canche, Mikey Arroyo, Jennifer Mancia and Nathan Jovel stand in front of the large mural displayed in a stairwell at the Ravenswood Health Center in East Palo Alto, which was painted by fellow teens in the East Palo Alto Mural Music & Arts Project. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Chances are you've seen the work of the Mural, Music & Arts Project while passing through East Palo Alto. The colorful murals, conceived and painted by youth artists, blanket the city's parks, public buildings and schools. Each painting — depicting current events and themes such as unity and community — is designed to not only beautify the city but also foster positive neighborhood change.

Founded in East Palo Alto in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula and the Ravenswood City School District in 2001, the organization began as a summer project to help connect local youth with mentors through art and music programs emphasizing community development and academic achievement. Since then, more than 5,000 youth artists have produced a hundred songs and created 554 public art works installed in East Palo Alto and surrounding communities, as well as San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles.

According to East Palo Alto police, the 400 feet of murals the group has installed in the city's parks have helped transform areas once overrun with crime into community gathering places.

The number of recorded gun shots at Jack Farrell Park dropped from 2,400 in 2011 to 630 in 2014 after the group installed a 1,200-square-foot mural there in 2012 as part of the city's Fit Zone Program, Police Chief Albert Pardini told the media in 2015.

"By the end of the (parks beautification) program, we noticed there was a significant reduction in gun violence where the murals went up," said Dany Cesena, director of outreach for the Arts Project. "By coming out ... and working on small arts projects, people were able to reclaim their city. We were super stoked. After the beautification project, people have come out to enjoy the public space."

As for the students, they've been able to acquire the skills and determination to become leaders in their community, he added.

Each summer, the Arts Project hires up to 25 student artists between the ages of 14 and 24 to work in its Teen Mural Program. Some of the youth are referred to the program; others join to fulfill community service hours ordered by a judge. Many are just looking for a fun after-school activity.

All participants go through a 10-week curriculum that weaves reading, writing, math and business skills with color theory, perspective drawing and painting. The students contribute to every stage of a project from voting on the mural's design to priming the walls and painting the mural to planning its installation and holding a public unveiling event. Through constant fundraising and grants — like this year's $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund — the organization is able to pay each student about $1,000, Cesena said.

"A lot of kids in East Palo Alto kind of go through a lot in their lives," Cesena said. "Their families are also dealing with really deep struggles — financial, social, emotional and other. The idea behind the program is to round up kids and have them work on arts projects, get some financial incentive and help them do better in school, as well as learn different kinds of skills that they don't normally get in daily life."

For Nathan Jovel, 18, who joined the Arts Project six years ago after the group visited his middle school, the experience has encouraged him to consider a career in industrial design.

Jovel said he already had an interest in drawing and music and thought the program would be a good way to fulfill community service hours required as part of his school curriculum.

"It was something to do after school and got me away from the house," he said.

What he didn't realize is how much he would get out of the program, he added.

Since working on five murals through the program, Nathan, who now is almost done with high school, said he can see the improvement in his drawing skills. Before, it was difficult to organize all of his ideas on paper, he said.

"I didn't really know how to get started. That was the hardest part," he said.

Now Jovel regularly helps with the group's mural projects from concept to completion.

Students in the Teen Mural Program are currently finishing a 320-foot mural around the exterior perimeter of the Ravenswood Family Health Center on Bay Road. The project depicts healthy family activities — a grandmother reading to her granddaughter, children playing in a park, families dancing and playing music together — in 20 separate panels. Grant money from the Holiday Fund has helped cover the cost of materials and stipends for the 20 student artists creating the project, which includes a 20-page coloring book in several languages for children visiting the health center. The group plans to unveil the project this spring.

Cesena said the organization hopes to continue to expand the arts programs into more areas.

"I really enjoy seeing how much of a difference programs like this can have on people's lives," Cesena said. "People find it difficult to work with troubled youth because, well, they can be hard to work with. But in this program, we can give them a paint brush or a microphone and tell them to create something, and they are more than happy to create and do something positive and something good."

More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, including how to contribute and a list of people who've already donated, can be found here.

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