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Queens Chronicle

Have a seat — and change the world

Bench murals encourage students to take on issues of social import

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

Mental health. Bullying. Discrimination. The environment.

These are among the issues taken on by groups of young students from six Queens public schools in an effort to effect social change. And their offense comes in the form of art.

It’s all part of a project spearheaded by the Center for Educational Innovation, a non-profit education organization that provides customized, hands-on support to meet the unique needs of students.

The students’ work — in the form of bench murals — was unveiled on Monday at the 21st Street Plaza at the intersection of Hoyt Avenue North in Astoria. It will remain on view throughout the summer. The benches will then be returned to the participating schools to beautify their school communities.

“Before the ocean was beautiful, now it’s dirty,” said Johnny Alvarado, 15, a tenth-grader at John F. Kennedy Jr. School P721 in Elmhurst. The students, under the supervision of their classroom teacher and a teaching artist, produced a mural titled “Treat Oceans Right, It’s Our Life!” It depicts “how polluted our oceans are versus how beautiful they were before.”

Plastic, it explains, “is killing the sea creatures, destroys their homes and causes harm to us humans.”

A similar theme was adopted by the students at Robert E. Peary School P75 in Ridgewood. In their mural, called “Skip Plastic and Save Our Oceans,” they explain that “plastic is a grave danger to ocean life. We want to bring awareness of the dangers. This mural reminds us what oceans are and who lives in them.”

Michael Abonia, 12, a sixth-grader at the school, took credit for drawing the whale that is the focal point of the mural.

‘”It’s the biggest animal in the ocean,” he explained. He hoped the mural would help people understand “what the ocean could look like” if everyone took more care.

In a work named “Emotional Roller Coaster,” students at George J. Ryan School MS 216 took on “the stigma behind mental illness and the shame in asking for help,” echoed in Queens Children’s Center PS 23’s entry “For Those Who Suffer in Silence,” which suggests “you aren’t wrong or broken for having a mental illness; you’re worthy of being seen.”

Caring for each other was the theme shared by Riverview School PS 277 in Corona, in a mural titled “Kindness Begins With Us,” a plea to end bullying and discrimination through kindness and friendship, and Joseph Pulitzer School IS 145 in Jackson Heights whose “We Are All Same Tree” mural expresses the wish that “when someone sits on our bench, we want them to think that we are all together in this as a community.”

CEI, working with students in 30 schools around the city, partnered with NYC Parks to bring the art work to public parks in all five boroughs. A kickoff event took place on May 30 at Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

“In this current climate, young people need a public platform to express themselves on current social issues in a constructive, creative, hands-on and powerful way,” said Alexandra Leff, creator of CEI Benchmarks and CEI director of arts education. “We are so proud of our students who have brought their passion and creativity and have taken on major issues in beautiful and powerful ways through their bench murals.”

CEI’s program includes in-class instruction and peer-to-peer workshops.

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