By Alexa Beyer. Students at M.S. 223 made a bench mural on the theme of speaking up. “Our bench mural is saying to speak up for what you believe in and not be afraid to be yourself. If you see something like sexual harassment, drug abuse, or any type of issue that is frequent and could harm people and the community, don’t be afraid to tell someone about it,” its placard reads.

M.S. 223 students’ bench mural bears a message: “Speak Up”

By Alexa Beyer. A bench mural at John Mullaly Park by students at M.S. 223 reads “Our bench mural is saying to speak up for what you believe in and not be afraid to be yourself. If you see something like sexual harassment, drug abuse, or any type of issue that is frequent and could harm people and the community, don’t be afraid to tell someone about it.”

Mott Haven middle school contributes its artistry to area park

What drives social change? For middle school students at the M.S. 223 Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Mott Haven, it all starts with speaking up. The students unveiled a hand-painted bench mural with a rainbow peace sign and the words “speak up, don’t hide, we believe you” at John Mullaly Park next to Yankee Stadium on June 7.

It was one of 10 bench murals painted by middle schoolers from Bronx schools, aiming to confront serious social issues ranging from gun violence to LGBT rights.

The initiative is part of  the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI)’s inaugural Benchmarks program. It called on students from each school to facilitate  their own workshops on social action and art, and to hone in on an issue that resonated with them, then paint their own bench mural under the guidance of internationally recognized artists.

Ariadna Phillips-Santos, M.S. 223’s Dual Language Coordinator who facilitated the 7th grade class’s project, said that the process started with a series of conversations about the most serious issues that students saw around them. She said the class discussed everything from drug addiction to gun violence.

“One thing we kept coming back to is that sometimes in our community we would see people turning a blind eye to everything that’s going on. Looking away from it, putting on your headphones, sort of being in your phone,” she said. “So what ends up happening is that there’s a lot of inaction”

From there, Phillips-Santos said the theme of being “upstanders” for their peers facing serious social issues–rather than passive bystanders–naturally crystallized. “Maybe you can’t stop everything that’s happening to them. But what can you do?’” they asked. With the phrase “speak up, don’t hide, we believe you,” they found their answer.

For 13-year-old Saul Martinez from P.S. 12 in Westchester Square, the anti-bullying theme that he and his classmates chose was inspired by his own experience. Martinez spoke of the times he had been bullied at school in the past before directing a message to the tape recorder: “To all of you at home, no bullying anybody: even if it’s for a reason.”

Alexandra Leff, who directs Arts Education at CEI, wanted the bench mural program to empower young people to speak out on serious issues swirling around in the media today.

“They are so brave taking on such major issues: tackling racism, tackling gun violence, tackling suicide and mental health,” said Leff, sitting atop a bench painted by students at Mosholu Parkway portraying black, brown, white, and green figures holding hands. Noting that The Bronx, with its 10 participating schools, had the largest number of benches of any borough, Leff said that she was “in awe of what they’ve come up with and the passion that’s behind all of their images.”

The benches will sit in John Mullaly Park all summer. In the fall, they’ll be returned to the schools that made them. Afterwards, parents and students at MS 223 can look forward to seeing the “Is This Us” bench installed permanently somewhere on campus.

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