Art Bridges Inter-Ethnic Differences

In the wake of an event that could have torn a community apart, Jewish and African-Americans living in CHAI neighborhoods turned to art to promote unity.

This April, the neighborhood will unveil their first project: a powerful community mural, conceptualized and painted by Jewish, African-American and Hispanic middle school boys.

The mural they created – 10 large-scale panels that explode with bold color, energy and a folk art interpretation of racial unity – will be unveiled at three neighborhood locations: Cross Country and Fallstaff elementary and Middle Schools and the Weinberg JCC. The ceremony will be held on April 14.

The Boy’s Mural Project, which initially engaged 24 middle schoolers, grew out of a need to address racial tensions in Northwest Baltimore following an altercation between two Jewish men and an African-American teenager. Throughout 10 months, these middle school students participated in workshops that addressed topics such as underlying stereotypes, then worked together to develop the mural’s social theme and learning painting and drawing skills.

By the end of the project, close to 120 boys and family members were involved.

“The boys learned to see the other,” says Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, who led the project. Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen is the co-founder and lead artist for Baltimore’s Rebuilding thru Art Project which employs public art to transform people and places.

“At first they segregated themselves into three groups, but by the end of the workshops, they enjoyed working together. They came together through writing, dialogue and art.”

“These youth share the same neighborhood but had many misunderstandings about one another,” says Mitch Posner, executive director of CHAI. “Our goal was to break down these negative stereotypes and promote tolerance.”

In fact, the mural project is just one of several art initiatives developed by CHAI under the umbrella of its Community Conversations program designed to promote inter-ethnic and inter-racial understanding. In addition to a Girl’s Photography project, which also will be on display at the Weinberg JCC, a recent boy’s storytelling project encouraged adults and middle school students from the community to explore commonalities and differences through the art of storytelling. The program was led by storytellers Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff and Omari Jeremiah.

“Our traditions have storytelling as a base,” explains Heléne Kass, who is CHAI’s community conversation coordinator. “The ability to share our stories, and listen to each other’s stories, can have positive life-long impact.”

Adult storytellers begin the sessions, then the boys spoke one-on-one with participants.

For Marc Young, a Jewish storyteller who spoke about his hopes and concerns for the future of his biracial granddaughter, a poignant moment came later while speaking with one of the boys. “He talked about feeling unheard at school, and overlooked by his teachers because he wasn’t disruptive in class. He also spoke about feeling painfully shy, even around his friends,” recalls Young.

“I was a quiet kid too at his age, so I know that feeling of isolation. This young man's story touched me deeply, creating a connection between us.  That is the real power of storytelling.”

"I didn't know exactly what to expect that day, but what those young men chose to reveal about themselves was transformative to me,” Young adds.

Many of the comments coming out of the storytelling project involved this recognition of commonalities, but it also revealed historical similarities and differences. Like the time they spoke about genealogy.

Kass recalls how one storyteller spoke about African Americans’ inability to trace family roots prior to the Civil War because slave owners didn’t name slaves. Meanwhile, Jews had the reverse experience. He couldn’t trace many family members post-World War II because they perished in the Holocaust.

“What they choose to reveal about themselves was transformative to me,” Young adds.

As the students grow into adults, there is hope that their experiences will transform the way they look at one another. As for the murals, they will have a lasting permanence within the community.

Explains Suzanne Levin-Lapides, former JCC Board Member and advocate for the completion of the Boy’s Mural Project: "In the evening hours, when the front of the Atrium of the JCC is lit, the mural will be visible to passing foot and vehicle traffic. It is a testament to what can be accomplished through communication between people who live in a community and never speak, learn or share with each other. It is also a public statement on what can be accomplished through the creation of such an expressive art project.”

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