Youth Make Art, Bring Change to Ramsay Park

On Tuesday May 1, the ninth grader leaders of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, known as the JCITs (Junior Counselors in Training), unveiled a community art piece at Ramsay Park near their Lenox Street program location.  The team of JCITs was inspired by gallery walks and videos that depicted politically-charged installation artworks by artists such as Ai Wei-Wei and Jean Michel Basquiat. The students decided they wanted to create their own work that would make viewers stop and think.  Adult staff from St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, along with a Tufts Tisch Scholar and a Lesley University graduate art therapy intern worked alongside the students to make the art installation happen.

The young people debated and then determined that their artwork would address gun violence around Lenox Street. “You don’t hear anything about [gun violence] unless it happens above Mass Ave. I think if more people knew how much it happened, they would be more encouraged to make changes,” said JCIT Evelyn Pimentel, who attends Cathedral High School. Another artist, JCIT Bryanna Rodriguez, stated, “I don’t hear about it in the news. I only hear it from the people around here.  My friend’s brother was shot and the next day the window was fixed and you never even knew it happened.”

The student group used flagging tape as the main medium of their artwork, weaving it into an isolated chain link fence to create an image in Ramsay Park.  Flagging tape is a material typically used to mark off borders and boundaries. The image read, “Change Will Come,” a phrase the young artists adapted from a speech they heard on gun violence.  In the talk, President Barack Obama said, “If Americans of every background stand up and say, ‘Enough! We have suffered too much pain, and care too much about our children to allow this to continue!’ Then, change will come.” All of the student artists wrote their hopes, dreams, experiences, lyrics, and hashtags on pieces of the flagging tape and added each to the fence in order to contribute to the larger whole image of words.  

Ramsay Park, where the art is installed, is a Lower Roxbury-South End park where positive change is coming.  The progress is quite visible, thanks to the efforts of SSYP, other Lenox-area teen groups, and the City of Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department.  In the summer of 2015, a coalition of organizers brought in positive programming to Ramsay Park, including a basketball league, tennis lessons, mural painting, and flower-planting. This led to a commitment from the City of Boston to improve the park. At the State of the City in January 2016, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a commitment of $2.4 million of city funds toward a full renovation of the park.

The JCITs of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs continue to create positive change, this time with art.  Community members--children and families--gathered in Ramsay Park to celebrate the art installation with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Two JCITs spoke movingly about their creative experience and the purpose of the artwork. Then, all the JCITs encouraged community members to participate in the process of creating art by adding their own thoughts on neighborhood violence to the installation.

Under sunny skies, people enjoyed the springtime weather; children played and a neighbors hugged.  Passers-by stopped to inquire about the bold and black words, “Change Will Come.” The JCITs wanted their art installation to create joy and inspire conversations. They achieved their goals and felt powerful and visible in the process.  

As with all installation art, the JCITs were aware that their artwork was temporary. Still, they were surprised that it took only two days for workers from the City of Boston to cut down the art. A JCIT staff member asked one worker what was happening. With regret, he said, “I knew [the artwork] was something good but had to do what I was told.” The conversation took place next to a pile of hypodermic needles that had yet to be removed.

The words of the art installation took on even more meaning and urgency in the presence of this seeming contradiction. How could beauty be removed while danger remained?  Nevertheless, the JCITs believe that even ephemeral art has the power to influence viewers and may still bring change to a neighborhood. The creative process certainly brought transformation for these young artists.   

by JCITs of St. Stephen's Youth Programs with Bella Vidana and Abby Thompson