Students aim for peace in the streets with global street art project

Jesus Pantoja was an Edward A. Hall Middle School student who participated in the Watsonville Inside Out art project and has since graduated. Photo: Daniel Levy

A small town in the Salinas Valley has turned several downtown buildings into art exhibits to promote peace on the streets.

On the walls of Watsonville’s Civic Plaza building and three other downtown locations, about 100 black and white portraits of local students, teachers and other citizens, anywhere between five and 15 feet tall, look out over passersby. It’s part of a global street art project called Inside Out, meant to celebrate the unheard voices in communities, to challenge perceptions and invite conversation about a better future.

Students at Edward A. Hall Middle School, Renaissance High School and Ceiba College Prepartory Academy chose the theme: “Peace in the Streets, You Only Live Once.”

Inside Out was created by French street artist JR, who won a $100,000 TED Prize in 2011. For a decade, JR has produced massive portraits of people, which he pastes in the streets, on buildings, trains, roofs and on bridges around the globe in countries like France, Israel, Kenya, India and the U.S. These photos, without any attribution or advertising, give a face to unheard members of communities, women, children, minorities and victims of war.

When he won the TED Prize, he invited people all over the world to create similar displays, and participants in more than 30 countries have done so, shooting black and white portraits of people in their communities, sending them to Inside Out to be converted into posters, and then pasting them up in public spaces where they live. The organization asks for donations for the posters, but will subsidize groups that don’t have the funds, said William Hopkins, production manager for Inside Out in New York.

The Watsonville Inside Out project started with Jean Beebe, the educational outreach coordinator for the Pajaro Valley Arts Council. Last summer she saw an Inside Out project on a grocery store wall in the Live Oak neighborhood of Santa Cruz.

Live Oak resident and educational specialist Mariah Roberts led that project with neighborhood middle schoolers. They chose the theme, “poking fun at stereotypes.” Roberts said they felt that members of the community consider them “skater punks.”

They pasted 27 three-foot by four-foot portraits and two twelve-foot-square portraits, largely of Live Oak’s Hispanic residents on a local grocery store and on the art studios that line 17th Ave. They held an art opening, something none of the kids had ever heard of, Roberts said. It inspired the Santa Cruz Public Library to do an even larger-scale Inside Out project this summer.

Their efforts also inspired Beebe to lay the groundwork for the Watsonville project. Enthusiasm spread fast, and soon she had teachers and students on board.

Daniel Levy, a digital media instructor at Edward A. Hall Middle School, asked his students to determine the theme. Immediately they suggested a peace in the streets theme, Beebe said.

Then high school students in Karen Lemon’s photography class at Renaissance High, which is a continuation school, developed interview questions to help the middle schoolers write essays expressing what peace on the street means to them.

“My students don’t always have the best image in the community,” Lemon said. She saw the Inside Out Project as a great opportunity to coach her students in mentoring younger kids. The essays weren’t used in the final display, but they got the students thinking and talking and built their enthusiasm around the project.

Lemon said she had a lot of naysayers among her students who questioned how they could make a difference in the violence. Yet they took on their mentor roles seriously. One student who had refused all other field trips even participated.

“What a change it made in her life once she stood tall in this mentorship role,” Lemon said. ”All of them were more present in the classroom and attendance was better.”

And the middle schoolers had a lot to say in those essays.

“I want my family to be safe. Peace in the streets means united like a family,” wrote Luis Gomez.

“Peace in the streets means that people are able to walk through the streets knowing that they won’t be killed because of the color they are wearing,” said Luis Montecinos.

Students from all three schools manned the cameras, asking their subjects for a broad range of emotions: contemplative, goofy, pride, confidence, fear, sadness, joy.

“Some of the children really came out of their shells,” Levy said. “I think it gives a face to all these children walking around with lots of different emotions and backgrounds. The violence from the gangs really scares them. They want to feel safe. Seeing these beautiful faces up on the wall brings immediacy to the humanity behind these students.”

A portrait of Jesus Pantoja, one of the middle schoolers who helped with the project, is up on the former City Hall building.

Pantoja said he’d be happy to participate in another project. “I just really think it helped us a lot. They haven’t been tagging in the street as much.”

Joey Ochoa, a Renaissance student at the time, took the project to heart, helping with the photography, pasting up the posters, making a video of the project and helping with the Santa Cruz library’s Inside Out project.

“I thought it was a great idea once I found out about the whole project and the main guy who does it all around the world,” he said. Ochoa has graduated and now has a job with a professional photographer. He credits Lemon with inspiring him.

“When you can touch even one or two kids with a project like this, that’s what this is all about, giving them a good artistic useful outlet for their passion, it get’s them on the right track,” Beebe said.

Levy and Lemon credit Beebe with shepherding the effort, working with the Watsonville City Council, the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department. Beebe described it as a “fabulous collaboration with the city.”

“It opened our eyes to what the potential can be,” said Lori Butterworth, chief development officer at Ceiba. “The kids demonstrated how we can come together over common values, goals and themes,” she said.

The Pajaro Valley Arts Council is already exploring how the project can evolve and intends to ask the Watsonville and Freedom Libraries for space to post requests to patrons for their “street stories.” These could be dreams for peace, how violence may have touched their lives and changed them, and stories of kindness and peace keepers. The stories may be used as visual art displays at Watsonville’s Cabrillo College location and the Watsonville Family YMCA, Beebe said.

“The actual posters will have to come down on or around Sept. 30, but we hope to continue the conversation of peace in our streets long after that,” she said.

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