Kobi Erez

The community around the Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI) in Southwest Detroit has been concerned about graffiti. This summer, more than 40 youth worked with professional artists from the Center for Creative Studies to paint murals on garage doors, fences and the walls of area businesses.

The results have reached far beyond a summer art project.

“Before I used to walk down the street and see graffiti everywhere,” said 14-year-old Cristian Rubio. “Now I see the art that I did. It makes me feel better about everything.”

Painting a Positive Picture 
Rubio was part of UNI’s Summer Urban Arts Mural Project, funded through federal stimulus dollars and coordinated by City Connect Detroit (CCD). More than 200 young adults are still being employed by the program that put more than 7,000 14- 24-year-olds to work this summer. As CCD completes its evaluation of its city wide youth employment program, it’s becoming clear that exposing young people to constructive jobs is a long-term workforce solution to chronic unemployment.

“We know that for every youth who has a positive summer work experience, we have set one more person on the path toward full employment,” said Larry Hightower, director of the Detroit Workforce Development Department. “That’s something that pays off for years to come.”

“Originally, the murals program was part of an alley clean-up project,” said Christine Bell, UNI’s youth development director. “We added the murals because of our graffiti problem. The murals beautify the neighborhood and allow the area businesses and residents to commission art work. We have talented, artistic youth and it gave them a sense of ownership, community pride and engagement. It also gave them leadership skills and a chance to work with professional artists. Other youth got to connect with a positive adult. It was good for everyone.”

Now, every time Rubio walks through his neighborhood, he sees his own artwork and is filled with a sense of ownership. Accordingly, he—and the other young people in the project—are less likely to participate in vandalism in the future. They now understand the pain, anger and frustration of having property defaced.

It was exactly the kind of frustration that Esteban Castro was feeling. He was raised in the neighborhood and moved back three years ago. He loves his house and can’t stop talking about the great people, the bustling library, and wonderful food that visitors can find in the area. But he has been discouraged by the graffiti.

“My white garage doors were always being tagged,” said Castro, who is a UNI board member. “It was like a big sheet of white paper. When I painted it different colors, the graffiti stopped. That’s the power of the murals. Vandals think twice about tagging the artwork. Plus, the images and colors make it hard to read the graffiti, so they don’t bother.”

Spreading Work Fever
The mural project also had a profound effect on its young participants. Rubio never considered art as a career, but after painting murals, he’s thinking about pursuing art professionally. Even if he doesn’t, the work experience alone has had a major impact.

“I was able to start taking responsibility for my own things and even help with family expenses,” he said. “Without a job, I would have just sat around at home the whole summer.”

Castro noted another powerful by-product of employing young workers. “Graffiti is like a negative fever that spreads throughout a community,” he said. “Work is like a positive fever that spreads. When one young person gets a job, others want to know how they can get one, too. Young people start learning what it feels like to earn money by doing something good.”

“This is why we focus on youth employment as a workforce development issue,” said City Connect Detroit CEO Dr. Geneva J. Williams. “An introduction to the joy and pride of an honest day’s work is just what some young people need to set them on the path to engaged citizenship.”


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