Youth group #Groundswell aims to expand #art and #activism work

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 2.50.05 PM.png

In 1996, Groundswell’s first mural went up on a building in Williamsburg. That piece, addressing the topic of tenants’ rights, no longer exists. It’s been whitewashed. But the nonprofit, which is dedicated to student art and activism, is still making its mark across the city with 500 murals and counting.

Robyne Walker Murphy, the social justice organization’s new executive director, has noticed Groundswell’s work as long as she’s lived in New York, some 18 years now.

“These murals were just a part of the landscape — part of my daily walk or just being in the neighborhood,” said Murphy, an art and social justice educator and administrator who joined the organization a year ago. “You would just see them everywhere.”

The murals are a large part of the organization’s mission — working with teaching artists, students primarily from ages 16 to 19, local groups and schools to address issues affecting the community and creating public art that reflects those issues.

“We’re not just painting things to make it really beautiful,” Murphy said. “We’re speaking to issues like police brutality and sexual harassment. We’re also talking about possibility and celebrating the beauty in these communities, too.”

In recent years, Groundswell has also expanded its programming to reach more students and people interested in “artivism” — a portmanteau of art and activism.

Brooklyn-based #Groundswell engages community to make art - and a statement

Groundswell Mural

It’s to be expected that some residents would object to allocating city funds to creating murals on the external walls of New York City Housing Authority developments when it’s hard to find funds to clear interior walls of persistent, dangerous mold. But Groundswell, a Brooklyn-based community arts nonprofit, regularly proves its value to supporters and detractors alike as it partners with local youth and community stakeholders to turn public walls – in NYCHA developments and elsewhere – into public works of art.

“It always turns out that those who resist in the early stages, the (NYCHA) tenant leaders, become the strongest advocates once they see the final result,” said Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchill, Groundswell’s youth development manager, who joined the organization in 2015. “They will tell that story over and over again, once they grasp the impact of the mural.”

Last year, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx representative who grew up in NYCHA housing, allocated $500,000 to Groundswell. The funds supported the Public Art/Public Housing initiative and produced three youth-led murals in each borough. The funds were from the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, a program intended to reduce violence and make neighborhoods safer in and around 15 NYCHA developments that have experienced some of the highest crime rates in the city. Groundswell partnered with Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, Queensbridge Houses in Queens, Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn, Stapleton Houses in Staten Island and St. Nicholas Houses in Manhattan.

“The Queensbridge project revealed how powerful art can be,” Bentsi-Enchill said. “The neighborhood was full of unengaged youth who were just idling. Once they plugged into the project, they took ownership of it and their commitment followed.”

Since 1996, through the medium of murals, Groundswell has matched artists and inner city youth to walls in underserved communities. The art brings messages of social justice to every corner of the city – including Rikers Island, where Groundswell produced 13 works of art with incarcerated youth in the past year alone.

Click here for more.