A ‘benchmark’ for youth social action

36K Special Ed. E. NY with their teaching artist
36K Special Ed. E. NY with their teaching artist

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | You better grab a seat for this one.

In the greatest number of schools participating in a citywide parks event ever, students from 30 schools recently unveiled their powerful social-action “bench murals” in Washington Square Park.

The brightly painted benches — 30 of them in all — were arrayed along the edge of the park’s fountain plaza, spanning nearly three-quarters of the way around the circle. They bore colorful and thought-provoking art and messages focusing on our world’s pressing topics, from racism and gun violence to L.G.B.T.Q. pride, bullying, the environment and more.

Students from M.S. 127 in the Bronx with their bench. (Photo by Tequila Minsky)

The May 30 event was the launch of a citywide exhibition, “CEI BENCHMARKS: Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change.”

CEI, or Center for Educational Innovation (www.the-cei.org), is a nonprofit that works directly with students, teachers, local school leaders and the community. The benches have since been scattered around the city — in one park per borough — and will remain on view through mid-September.

“Why did we do this?” asked Michael Kohlhagen, the C.E.O. of CEI, in his remarks at the event. “We did this so each of the students could participate in a discourse — and to take a stand. Each of you are leaders,” he told the students. “You are all the future of New York City, New York State and the world. What’s obvious today is that your opinions matter.”

Students from 36K Special Ed from East New York with their teaching artist. (Photo by Tequila Minsky)

The CEI BENCHMARKS program was created by Alexandra Leff, CEI director of arts education.

“I’m just so proud of the students,” Leff said. “They painted such powerful works of art. These vibrant and meaningful bench murals have such strong messages for social change. Young people have so much to say and this program gives them a voice through art. There are so many issues swirling in the media, and this program allows young people to join the conversation. It’s time to hear what young people have to say.”

Alexandra Leff, C.E.I. director of arts education, left, with Michael Kohlhagen, CEI C.E.O.

The program’s concept is to inspire young people to confront major social issues, become engaged citizens and effect social change through creating large-scale, issues-based murals on benches for public display in a public place — city parks.

In all, around 650 students in grades 5 through 9 from around the city participated. The program includes in-class instruction and visits with distinguished guest artists at their studios, museum or gallery exhibitions, or at the schools.

A Sea New Deal: Instead of fish stuck in plastic bottles and jellyfish caught in baggies (on the bottom panel), we can help sea life swim free and happily in clean oceans if we cut down on our use of plastic. (Photo by Tequila Minsky)

At the Village event, the throng of students and teachers filled the plaza between the fountain and the Washington Square Arch.

Groups of students each read aloud statements about their individual bench and the message it conveyed and its importance.

One class focused their bench on homelessness.

“They’re homeless — not hopeless,” one of the students stressed.

L.G.B.T. issues and designs were a popular theme among the students. (Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Another girl spoke about the bench she and her friends designed on the topics of bullying and L.G.B.T. rights.

“There’s a secret message on the bottom of our bench — ‘Wake Up,’” she said. “Get involved.”

Another student emphasized the message of the bench she and her classmates did: “Keep immigration, not deportation.”

One of the benches dealt with mental health and issues like depression and even suicide. Its message was uplifting.

“We want our bench to be like a hug,” a girl with that team of young artists explained.

The students did all the painting themselves.

“Autistic and ADHD brains work differently,” read a message on one bench covered with interesting abstract shapes.

A bench about gender equity sported slogans like “Equal Pay,” “#MeToo” and “50/50.”

In Manhattan, three of the benches are now in Tompkins Square Park, right by the ping-pong table and flagpole on the Ninth St. walkway.

One class each from three Manhattan schools did those benches, including Middle School 322M, City Knoll Middle School 933M and University Neighborhood Middle School 332M.

Also praising the functional public art were Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks Department commissioner; Matthew Washington, a deputy Manhattan borough president; and Ketler Louissaint, the superintendent for District 75, from which 10 schools participated.

I.S. 49 students from Staten Island with their public artwork bench. (Photo by Tequila Minsky)

“Thank you for taking a stand,” Louissaint told the students, “and we are so proud of standing beside you. Students are showing, if adults won’t tackle tough issues, students are ready to do so.”

Virginia Wagner, one of the program’s guest artists, talked about how, through art, students can learn to express themselves.

“Young people speak from a place of passion about a better world,” she said, “and they know what that world looks like.”

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