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Pittsburgh organization involves local youth in community art

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Pittsburgh organization involves local youth in community art

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

By Stephen Caruso / Contributing Editor

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Rashad Jamal, though his friends usually call him Free, was bubbling with enthusiasm as he directed kids around.

“If you see some space, grab a brush and fill it,” Jamal said. “Spread the love.”

In response, one of the many teenagers at the lot on Idlewild Street in Homewood grabbed a brush. The wall was already half filled with swirls and spirals of orange, with an occasional eye staring out at the viewer.

This effort was organized by Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, or MLK for short. Jamal, a member, described its goals simply.

“We employ youth, employ artists, and help the community,” Jamal said.

MLK does this by paying teenagers and artists to come out, five days a week for six weeks, to paint murals across Pittsburgh — as well as in 12 other states and 5 other countries. Wilkinsburg native Kyle Holbrook founded the nonprofit organization in 2002. It has been funded by private donations, including the Heinz Endowment, since its founding.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” Holbrook said. “[But] I was never interested in painting a pretty picture.”

Holbrook got the idea for MLK when some neighborhood kids playing in the street approached him as he painted a mural solo in Wilkinsburg. He invited the kids to join him, and as conversations started, the idea was formed.

“Our job as an artist is to make a visual statement,” Holbrook said as he spoke to the kids and assembled media by this newest project. “As artists…what we’re supposed to do is bring attention to issues in the world.”

Bright orange marked this mural’s issue — “Stop Gun Violence” — a topic that has affected Holbrook’s his whole life.

“I lost all my friends growing up,” Holbrook said, speaking to the assembled MLK participants. “And I know you’ve been through all kinds of stuff.”

Community leaders, including former city council member Tawanda Carlisle and Reverend Glenn Grayson of Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church, also spoke at the event. Many mentioned their stories of loss due to gun violence. But the message was universally hopeful.

“I don’t want your potential to be run into the ground,” Grayson said. “[You can] chose to pick up a book, not a gun.”

Ernest Bey, a member of Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder, or MAD DADDS, liked how MLK publicizes a better image of the African American community — specifically men — than what typically appears in the media.

“Normally, the pictures of young black men we see are in handcuffs,” Bey said.

Instead, MLK shows them with brushes. The group is currently painting nine other murals across Pittsburgh, including three in Oakland. They also have two in Washington D.C. and seven in Miami being made right now.

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Angel Williams, a Homewood resident, got involved in MLK while looking for a summer job. The experience has turned into more than a means of collecting some pocket change.

“I actually like it,” Williams said. “We get to express art and send a message out.”

The layer Williams and her fellow painters added today is just the undercoat. By the end of the program, now in its second week, a whole new piece of art will be on display for Homewood’s residents.

When finished, the mural will depict the ‘future of the community,” with new buildings and a thriving community, Holbrook says. The mural itself is being painted on the side of the Homewood Renaissance Association’s building, an organization working in trade training to try and help rebuild the neighborhood.

According to Holbrook, property owners and organization usually come to MLK asking to have murals done on their property. MLK then assess the applicants for the visibility of their location, the condition of the wall for painting, and if the applicant can help share the cost of the painting.

“People want murals,” Holbrook said. ““[We’re] responding to requests.”

The program also gives Williams — and fellow students like her — the opportunity to interact and share their experiences with other Pittsburghers who don’t know about the effect of gun violence on neighborhoods.

“Working with kids around the city has grown relationships,” Williams said. “See[ing] the difference between their lives and my life and their communities and my community.”

MLK’s mural on gun violence coincides with three instances of gun violence this past week. On the morning of July 5, Alton Sterling was killed during a police confrontation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a parking lot where he sold homemade CDs. Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 6.  A protest in downtown Dallas Thursday night ended when 25-year-old Micah Johnson shot police officers, killing five and injuring seven.

Jamal said while the mural was related to the recent deaths, it was also related to ongoing issues.

“[Gun violence] is a reality a lot of youth have to deal with,” he said. “It’s a reality we deal with on a regular basis.”

Bey sees programs like MLK as opportunities to break from that reality and start anew.

“You can be the person to say ‘I’m not going to be a part of this,’” Bey said.

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Pittsburgh organization involves local youth in community art