This Spring, with the collaboration of passionate individuals across industries, the community space of George Washington Carver Houses was transformed from a woebegone, unkempt space to a welcoming, beautiful community hub.
The process started months ago, when Luz Guell, Project Coordinator at Mt. Sinai’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC), and Maida Galvez, Co-Director of COEC, teamed up with Jazmine Dejesus, president of the community group that manages resident interactions at George Washington Carver Houses, to create a space in which members of the community could interact, learn, and feel comfortable in. Their renovation took place in three steps. The first was simple: a thorough cleaning of the area.
Next, Publicolor stepped in. A not-for-profit youth development program that works with kids in the community to paint public spaces, Publicolor was led to the project by Project and Event Coordinator Irma Nepomuceno. Led by staff member and photo archivist Javier Peña, the team came in and gave Carver Houses a clean base coat of paint. Painting alongside Javier was a group of students across a range of programs that Publicolor offers: COLOR Club, a beginning apprenticeship program; Next Steps, which provides targeted support for college and career prep along with painting opportunities; and Fresh Coat, Publicolor’s semi-professional painting team. All students are hand-picked first from Paint Club, an afterschool development program in which students learn the basics of commercial painting while revitalizing their schools.
“Every semester [Publicolor] goes to about three to four schools—middle schools, high schools, and so on…” Javier explained. “We train students that attend each school how to get involved in painting their own spaces. We’re usually there anywhere between 10-13 weeks, during which we offer curriculums and programs to teach students painting, design, and so on. From there, the students get involved in a project, usually to beautify their own school.”
"We try to get as many people from the community—teachers, parents, district members, even police precincts in the local neighborhoods—to participate. We try to make it a community transformation. Once we’re done, we usually invite anywhere from between 7-15 students to join our continuing program.”
Javier himself first became a part of Publicolor at the age of 12, when the group came to his school. He followed the same steps, learning how to paint as a part of Paint Club, graduating to COLOR Club, eventually becoming a part of Fresh Coat, going to college, and finally returning to what continues to be beloved, transformative, essential social program.
“I didn’t grow up in a great neighborhood…so—and I tell this all the time to my students—the best part of Publicolor was the exposure. Being able to leave my neighborhood and being exposed to new things, like college trips, going to the city at a young age, being surrounded by adults that had Masters degrees or Bachelors degrees…ultimately, getting the feeling that I can do this too. I love the program. I always found myself gravitating towards it, and I’m happy now to give back.”
I was lucky enough to paint with Javier and his students: kids who expressed similar feelings about the program, came ready to work hard, and to teach me, a complete rookie, how to paint as well. It was compelling to hear about their dreams and aspirations as I volunteered alongside them—painting at about half their pace.
Binta, who has been in the program for about two years, was my painting mentor. She spoke with passion about her desire to become a writer as she taught me how to properly tape door frames and walls. She asked me questions about my own Masters program as we taped down large sheets of brown paper on the ground to catch any paint spills. She wondered about what opportunities there were in writing: how to make it a career. It’s difficult to really convey how fun and inspiring it was to talk to such a bright-eyed, ardent kid—to hear about all that she was ready to set out to do, and to wonder if I had felt so strongly at her age.
“A bunch of us are visiting colleges right now, up-state. They’re supposed to be back today. I think it’s great that we get to do that here, travel and visit as part of the program. As part of Publicolor.”
Aminata, a 6th grader working diligently at painting the walls a clean white and warning me to watch the splatter on my jeans, shared her own goal of becoming a dentist — “But I’m still young.” She laughed. “I’m not sure yet, I could change it up.”
When asked what her favorite part of the program was, she enthusiastically spoke of meeting the volunteers, remembering in particular those who were willing to share their own experiences—people she found inspiring. “There was a girl, McKenzie. She was fun and funny and we really bonded. I really like meeting people like her.”
There were about ten students there the Wednesday that I volunteered at the site: from Binta and Aminata, members of COLOR club, to Tyrae, already part of the Fresh Coat professional program. It was a privilege to be able to work with them and see first-hand how important Publicolor and programs like it are to our society. I left humbled.
The Publicolor team made quick work of Carver Houses; at the end of Day 2, April 13th, the community space was ready. Step 3: color. That’s when Parsons School of Design stepped up to the plate. Parsons School of Constructed Environments students, under the guidance of professors Helen Quinn and Gina Gregorio, came in to design and paint murals for the space. They employed colored paints, color theory, patterning, and specific inspiration from the color research of artist Josef Albers to create feature walls.
The result was truly transformative: a clean, light, colorful space for the community to gather in. Take a look at the renovation process below—how Carver Houses was entirely re-made.
The space is ready for the community and for Mt. Sinai, whose community outreach leaders Luz and Maida will create activities and initiatives in the hub specifically designed for residents and community members.
There you have it: a community project followed enthusiastically from beginning to end. George Washington Carver Houses underwent an incredible journey, and I am proud to say that I was a part of it. The project could not have been so seamlessly successful without the collaboration of people and groups across industries and disciplines; it was eye-opening and exciting to see what can be accomplished if one only reaches out a hand to help.
At the heart of the project was the universal, altruistic drive to give others better lives.
That is the truth of design, and the revolution that the industry needs to undergo as a whole: recognizing that design creates not simply the four walls that surround you, but actual, lived experience.
Visit Carver Houses. Take another look at Publicolor or groups like it and volunteer where you can.
Be a part of this revolution and get a shot at shaping lives. You won’t regret it.
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