Project inspires East Palo Alto youth through graffiti art, hip-hop and education


Twenty years ago, the intersection of O’Keefe and Euclid in East Palo Alto was one of the most dangerous street corners in the United States. Today, a brightly colored mural reading “Live in Peace” adorns the house on that corner. Other motifs include a gun sprouting flowers, an anatomically correct heart and a serene woman in a yoga pose.

This is the headquarters of the Mural Music & Arts Project, an East Palo Alto-based organization that offers year-round youth development programs in the arts, including intricate graffiti art and hip-hop music.

With funding for public school art programs on the decline, the project has stepped in to fill an important void. The Ravenswood City School District, which serves K-8 students from East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, does not offer in-school art classes. “The arts have suffered tremendously,” said newly appointed Superintendent Gloria Hernandez. “It hasn’t been an area of focus in terms of our curriculum and instruction, and my goal is to change that.”

Starting next school year, Hernandez wants to partner with the Mural Music & Arts Project to create a visual and performing arts curriculum for grades 6-8 that corresponds with state educational standards.

Hernandez’s vision aligns well with the goals of the Mural Music & Arts Project. As the project’s deputy director, Olatunde Sobomehin, puts it, “The mission is pretty simple: It’s to educate, empower and inspire youth through participation in the arts.”

Project staff members are eager to work more closely with the schools, Sobomehin said, adding, “It is in the creative space, in the artistic space, where the highest form of thinking occurs.”

Painter and East Palo Alto resident Sonya Clark-Herrera founded the project in 2001 with her husband Eugene, a lawyer and curriculum developer. Their initial goals were modest. “We just wanted to tie in our skills,” Clark-Herrera said. “We didn’t think we would stay doing it for 13 years. We thought it was a summer program, and then it evolved.”

What started as a program that hired local teens to design and install a public mural in their community grew into something much larger after the group’s first piece was unveiled on Sept. 10, 2001. City officials and district personnel asked if the group would create a mural for every school in the Ravenswood district.

The program grew from there, always remaining youth-driven. With seven programs to date, ideas for new programming are born out of the interests of the participants.

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The most recent development is the formation of the Youth Leadership Academy in 2011. In this program, 20 to 25 high school leaders from the San Francisco and East Palo Alto communities come together to receive social, emotional and academic support.

“We found out that we couldn’t touch them simply through art,” Sobomehin said. “We had the trust and the leverage to address many other things.”

Participants agree that the Mural Music & Arts Project has helped them develop in ways that reach far beyond arts education, especially through programs like the Youth Leadership Academy. The organization is a family, Sobomehin said.

Susan Vunga, a senior at East Palo Alto Academy, has been involved with the project since her sophomore year and is a member of the Youth Leadership Academy.

On a Monday evening, Vunga sits on a cushioned couch at the Mural Music & Arts Project headquarters. Outside, two high school boys are spray painting the words “Save Life” onto a wall, while younger kids roll by on skateboards or shoot hoops. Kyle Tana, one of the program instructors, greets all the kids by name.

Vunga is taking a break from working on her essay for government class. She stares out at the wall across from her, decorated with bold splashes of blue and orange graffiti art.

“If I wouldn’t have come to MMAP [Mural Music & Arts Project], I wouldn’t have realized I’m capable of being that type of person that can… communicate with people the way I can now,” she said, explaining that the program has helped her to open up and express herself more honestly.

She’s been doing very well in school lately, she said. She believes this is largely due to an inspiring message she received from a former staff member, who left the project to pursue higher education. “She said something about, look at what she’s doing, it shows us that we can do things like that too,” Vunga recounted. “I don’t hear people saying that too often, especially in this community.”

Sarah Woodward, director of Arts and Programs, explains that while the Youth Leadership Academy explicitly promotes “wraparound” development, all of the programs aim to address elements of educational and personal growth that extend beyond the art form being studied.

The History through Hip Hop program, for example, works to foster increased literacy, positive goal-setting and expression through performance. Sitting amid a stack of records and a set of giant speakers, History through Hip Hop director Demetric Sanders explained how he tries to “extract learning through hip-hop.”

“What makes Drake’s line so catchy?” he asked, “Well, he has a cool simile…. Or he has a metaphor, or he has a rhetorical question… so we learn these lyrical devices and how we can incorporate those into our rhymes.”

The best rappers, he said, constantly integrate advanced vocabulary words into their music and are knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects they can cleverly allude to. Most importantly, though, he emphasizes that hip-hop can teach youth about setting goals.

“Hip-hop is really about ambition… going out there and getting it, making things happen, dreaming about something and going and achieving your goals,” Sanders said.

While hip-hop artists sometimes talk about reaching these goals through illegal or violent means, Sanders teaches youth to take this ambitious mindset out of the context of hip-hop and apply it to more positive academic, personal and interpersonal goals in their lives.

Superintendent Hernandez, a big proponent of reintegrating music programs back into the Ravenswood district, wants to align after-school programs such as History through Hip Hop with the in-school curriculum and literacy goals. Like Sanders, she’s excited about the vocabulary-building and performative aspects of rap and spoken word.

The Graffiti Arts Program is another artistic endeavor that connects with youth on their own terms. Developed in 2010 in an effort to both legitimize graffiti as an art form and to reduce vandalism, the program partners with the East Palo Alto Police Department and receives funding through the U.S. Department of Justice. It responds to youthful desires to find a legal outlet for self-expression via graffiti art.

Artist in Residence Edward “Scape” Martinez said the straightforward and bold style of graffiti connects with youth who are seeking affirmation and validation about their place in the world.

“It’s life affirming. It’s about making a statement that I exist, that other people like me exist,” Martinez said. “It’s the idea of reclaiming space, of reclaiming large spaces to say something.”

Since this style already speaks to so many youth, Martinez said it is a great jumping off point to teach kids about classic ideas of color theory, form and design that they may not otherwise be interested in.

But above all, he said, it allows them to look inside themselves as they try to find a message to share. “In classic art, you have to look outside yourself,” Martinez said. “Graffiti art is the opposite, you’re reinterpreting yourself and your name … to me it’s a lot more personal and a lot more direct.”

Program alumni and Graffiti Arts Program instructor Daniel Nava builds on this idea, explaining that as a youth, the program taught him to expand his reach by incorporating elements of his own history into his work. This way, “they won’t just see the graffiti, but they’ll also see the culture,” he said of his audience.

Superintendent Hernandez hopes that, ultimately, the Mural Music and Arts Project will be able to help the school district develop a holistic arts program. She hopes that in-school arts electives will be bolstered by complementary after-school programs, all of which will help students meet state education targets.

She would like to hire Mural Music & Arts instructors to serve as artists in residence, inviting them into the classroom to do demonstrations and lead workshops.

“We’re really looking at aligning all of our programs so it’s not a piecemeal approach, and so that it’s connected, and all connected back to academic success, student engagement and our learning outcomes,” Hernandez said.

Changes are certainly on the horizon for the Mural Music & Arts Project. If Hernandez and the program leaders have their way, the organization will soon be able to reach more kids than ever before. However, the staff emphasizes that the program will remain a close-knit family, even as they extend their reach.

“You don’t graduate out of a family, you don’t retire from a family, those things remain true in this family,” Sobomehin said, “Once a student comes through here, they feel a part of this.”

Links to check out:

Listen to reporter Katie Brigham explain the story behind the story on KZSU Stanford’s “Peninsula Report” radio show with host Eliza Ridgeway:

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