Brooklyn students paint city benches to speak out against bullying, racism

Students stand around mural they created on benches
Students from Herbert S. Eisenberg IS 303 pose with their city bench, painted to display the affect of war on childhood development.
Photo by Jada Camille

Student leaders from local middle and high schools are using their creative talents to speak out against community issues. The young trailblazers painted city park benches, unveiled Friday at Prospect Park, with inspiring messages on sensitive subjects such as racism, homophobia, gun violence and bullying.

“Our bench mural addresses the issue of bullying,” said Laiquan Griffin, a senior at Brooklyn School for Career Development PS 753. “We choose this issue because we believe that everyone should be treated with kindness, compassion, love and especially respect. Our bench reflects positive messages that people can take with them throughout their day.”

The murals are a part of the Center for Educational Innovation Benchmark — an all-inclusive social action arts program that partnered with the city’s Parks Department and local artists and art teachers to work with kids on creative projects like the painted city benches.

The artists worked with kids to “explore social activism, examine social-action art and artists, survey the history and practice of public art, select and research a critical social issue and formulate a message for social change, and translate that message into a bench mural,” according to a release.

Student smiling as he talk about art project on benches
Laquian Griffin, a senior at Brooklyn School for Career Development PS 753, talks about his class’ anti-bullying bench mural.Photo by Jada Camille

Mya Willia, one of Griffin’s classmates, said she learned the importance of raising awareness and “to love people even though life is hard.”

Another student, middle schooler Hm Imtiaz, explained the meaning behind his classmate’s Ukrainian crisis-inspired bench.

“We collectively agreed that the Ukraine crisis was difficult to understand. We came up with the slogan ‘War will end, we will mend’ because we are hopeful that we can find peace in this world,” said Imtiaz, of Students of Herbert S. Eisenberg IS 303. “Our bench shows images that represent peace and the after effects of war.”

Jules Roberts, the teaching artist who helped Imtiaz and his classmates, explained why the children chose the images they painted.

“We made a mural in which the back of the bench shows in a comic book format the narrative progression of a child’s experience in war,” said Roberts. “You see a young girl playing with a teddy bear, having fun, and then you see how soldiers come in and the destruction and harm that war causes and this loss of childhood innocence.”

“The students have really powerful language skills and ability to come up with these beautiful slogans,” Roberts added.

According to another teaching artist, Laura McAdams, her school’s bench aimed to represent how racial discrimination affects mental health. 

Song Yoo and her students created a painting that stated “Your Health Matters” with small anecdotes of what the students deemed pivotal to proper mental health.

Artists talks about her students bench mural
Song Yoo, a teaching artist with CEI Benchmark talks about the meaning behind her students’ mural on a city bench. Photo by Jada Camille

Senior Program Coordinator Tara Kilbane cheered the artwork and the messages students created on their benches.

“You have a powerful, meaningful and beautiful message on your bench. You’re going to make a huge impact this summer,” said Kilbane. “You should be proud of yourselves.”

Participating teachers and artists affirmed the children’s work and stressed the importance of their creativity. 

“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, so they can join the conversation and make a difference,” Alexandra Leff, creator and director of Arts Education at CEO, told Brooklyn Paper. “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. Their messages for social change will inspire thousands of people this summer in our citywide parks exhibition.”

This year’s mural program served over 1,200 students in over 32 schools across the city.

Brooklyn schools involved with the initiative were Joseph B. Cavallaro IS 281, Herbert S. Eisenberg IS 303, IS 381, Marine Park JHS 278, New Heights MS 722, School for Career Development PS 753, and the Summit Academy Charter School 730.