New York City’s public school students returned to Washington Square Park for the third year to present the newest benches they painted for several city parks — with messages espousing both long-standing and modern issues impacting young people.
“Be the pillars of peace.”
“Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you but don’t make me wear your shoes.”
“Anxiety is something that is part of me but it’s not who I am.”
Through a stunning and thought-provoking display of public artwork in Washington Square Park, New York City students chimed in on some of society’s most pressing and poignant issues: gun violence, racism, mental health, climate change and environmental justice.
Dozens of painted benches, hundreds of youth, and proud teachers lined around the Washington Square Fountain as onlookers snapped photos of the benches and absorbed the messages being passed on from the students.
On Friday, all 30 benches that were painted will be transported to their new homes in New York City public parks for a summer exhibition lasting through August.
Those parks are: Jackie Robinson Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Cunningham Park in Queens, Reverend T. Wendell Foster Park in The Bronx, and Clove Lakes Park in Staten Island.
The Benchmarks program is overseen by the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), a public education advocacy nonprofit based in New York City. The program aims to empower students to share their voices — and is now in its third year of organizing city youth to choose a major social issue and translate that into public artwork.
This year, students reemphasized social, racial, cultural, and ecological topics — some of which still remain deeply-rooted issues in New York City — in their artwork: racial injustice, gun violence, mental health awareness, bullying, respect for the environment, religious freedom, LGBTQIA+ rights, and world peace.
Alexandra Leff, creator of the Benchmarks program and executive director of arts education at CEI, acknowledged the third-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, and pointed to the need for young people to express themselves amid the current climate.
“You all have transformed Washington Square Park today, and you will impact hundreds of thousands of people this summer with your benches,” Leff told students at the park. “These benches just shine so great with your messages for social change.”
Benchmarks worked with more than 900 students in 30 schools across New York City in this most recent rendition. Teaching artists — Domingo Zapata, Federico Solmi, and Jordan Seaberry —worked with students to explore and conceptualize social activism.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed his recognition of the students’ “collective artistic genius, vibrant imagination, and unwavering commitment to social justice” in a proclamation that was read at the bench unveiling.
“As the next generation, you will power our metropolis and pave powerful new pathways to fairness and equality,” Adams stated in his proclamation.
Duha Ahmad, a 12-year-old seventh grader from P.S. 266 in Queens, presented her class’s bench mural highlighting mental health and isolation. The students demonstrated urgency in their artwork, but also reminded people of the “hope and light within the darkness”: Even the smallest gesture could save a life.
“We chose this issue because it was particularly severe recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brought along,” Ahmad said. “Our bench displays a boy with his head down in a spotlight with one person shining the light upon him and another surrounding the scene. This symbolizes the importance of bringing attention to those who are struggling mentally, putting a spotlight on them and their needs before it worsens or before it’s too late.”
Anniyah Collins, an 11-year-old fifth grader at P.S. 160 Walter Francis Bishop Magnet School of the Arts in Queens, introduced her school’s chosen issue: bullying. The students decided to name their bench “Don’t be the problem, be the solution.”
“We decided to study this topic as a class because we all have encountered bullying in various forms, whether at school or online,” Collins said. “We drew attention to this problem because it appears more frequently than many adults realize.”
Collins touched upon the far-reaching impacts of bullying, including depression and poor grades at school. The solution to bullying lies in kindness.
“We also painted scenes of kindness to help people see it is not hard to be helpful and kind to others,” Collins said.
Mohamed Alnamer, a 12-year-old sixth grader from P.S. 124 Osmond A Church in Queens, said his class created their own superheroes — one of whom the students named “Empathy” — promoting peace amidst ongoing wars and conflicts in the world.
“We want to be pillars of peace,” Alnamer said. “Empathy loves listening, dialogue, justice, and kindness.”
Chloe Moy, a 10-year-old fourth grader from P.S. 31 The Bayside School in Queens, said her class chose to address water, land, and air pollution.
“As the next generation, we have to be stewards of nature,” Moy said.
Moy referenced Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama — whose art has dotted New York City’s public landscapes for decades — as a model advocate.
“We have written about her life and about her love, peace and no-war-advocacy, and most of all, the symbolic meaning of the dots,” Moy said. “The dots represent that we’re not alone in this world.”
Isabella Calleruiova, a 13-year-old seventh grader at the South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, pulled in the most recent headline about gun violence impacting children in New York City: An 11-year-old girl in The Bronx was killed after being shot by a stray bullet this past Monday.
“We chose this issue because hundreds of kids and adults are dying in the city solely due to gun violence,” Calleruiova said. “Our bench has a rainbow to illustrate that if the city had no guns on the streets, it will be a place full of fun and tranquility.”
Last year, there were 246 people in New York City who were killed because of gun violence, Gothamist reported. Calleruiova underlined empathy — a common motif across many of the benches this year — as the guiding force needed to move beyond gun violence.
“We hope that our bench expresses to the world that people will have more empathy and will stop shooting children and shooting, in general,” Calleruiova said. “We want to inspire people so we can stop gun violence within the city. A world without gun violence would be a better place.”