PROVIDENCE — After setting down her paint brush, Deborah Ndayisaba gazed up at the purple-colored protestors who spread across a section of a new large-scale mural on the exterior of The Avenue Concept’s headquarters.
A senior at La Salle Academy in Providence, Ndayisaba, 17, said she had her own “advocacy awakening” when the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2020. She joined the diversity club at school, became involved in PVD World Music, which looks to celebrate and enrich traditional African music and arts, and researched how many of the racial injustices of the Civil Rights era are now still relevant today.
The protestors, for her, are symbolic. “It’s unfair how racial discrimination can touch everything. And activism isn’t just marching on the streets,” said Ndayisaba, who is applying to colleges to eventually go into the medical field where she hopes to help women of color.
It’s those kind of personal elements that scatter this newly finished collage mural by local youth who are involved with the Nonviolence Institute, Rhode Island Latino Arts, Haus of Codec, and PVD World Music — all Providence-based organizations. The effort was led by The Avenue Concept, a public arts organization, and international community-based public art organization Artolution.
For Abiya Irumua, 17, the mural talks about “generational change.”
“This talks about homelessness, body dysmorphia, generational trauma, and what it means to be a refugee,” Irumua said. “This is life in South Providence, but this is life everywhere for our generation.”
The Avenue Concept, which is the state’s leading public art program, was founded in Providence in 2012. Since then, artists from around the world have been commissioned to paint mammoth-sized murals across downtown that are part of the city’s skyline today.
“Art is a way to create a common ground and for the youth to blend together and create something that captures a single moment,” said Yarrow Thorne, executive director and founder of The Avenue Concept. “We used this mural as that moment.”
A few of the Concept’s most notable works address longstanding community issues, such as “Still Here” by muralist Gaia, which depicts Lynsea Montanari, a member of the Narragansett tribe and an educator at the Tomaquag Museum, as they hold a picture of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett elder who founded the museum. In September, Boston-based artists Josie Morway painted a new mural in Warren that addresses sea level rise.
This new project, which was completed after 10 painting days on Sept. 30, is a pilot for a larger community participation program that was identified in The Avenue Concept’s latest strategic plan. The goal of the program, Thorne explained, was to address representation, neighborhood voice, unique cultural perspectives, and community needs in their upcoming projects.
“Over the last year, we’ve really tried to listen and better understand the stories that are intersecting in our own neighborhood,” Thorne said. “We are looking to do more than just the giant pieces of beautiful art in downtown, but to serve the community that surrounds us.”
Thorne said the Concept, which is based in the Upper South neighborhood of Providence, selected the four local organizations because of how their work makes an impact across a diverse set of communities. Each organization brought four to five members of their youth communities to learn, connect, co-create themes, and eventually execute the mural with the help of Artolution’s co-founder Dr. Max Frieder.
Frieder, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and former classmate of Thorne’s, brings public art projects around the world — including in refugee camps. Frieder said he trains refugee-artists on how they can work with kids who have been through trauma and teach them to express what’s most important to them through art.
“With this project, we brought four very different community groups together and it has been remarkable to see them come together and reflect on their similarities,” said Frieder, who has participated in public art installations on all seven continents.
Frieder and arts educator Anna Chapman helped the students through workshops by developing ideas and learning techniques before the final creative design was unveiled. Each element, the youth participants told the Globe, was an idea they came up with.
Each participant painted a scene in a “memory ball,” which looked like a golden orb with a scene of their choice inside. Some painted themselves playing basketball, another read “stop drug abuse,” and one painted themselves playing a trumpet.
One memory ball said, “You only get one life. It’s your duty to live it as fully as possible.” It’s a quote inspired by Jojo Moyes, an English journalist and novelist.
Each participant talked about the issues they and their families face in South Providence today: their communities getting priced out as the cost of living increases. Others have faced racism and homophobia in school. Some say their family’s generational trauma has prevented their own parents from healing.
For example, Jeremy Garcia, 22, a self-described “proud, Black-Latino,” described the stereotypes of South Providence being considered an “urban hood” where residents are predominantly people of color. Garcia said many of their neighbors have watched cases of police brutality, such as the killing of George Floyd, and are afraid to call the police.
“These are the people who are supposed to save us and who we should be able to turn to when we are in danger,” Garcia said. “If you can’t turn to the police, where do you turn?”
Expressing themselves “and letting go of their past is the only way we can can heal and move forward,” said Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute. “We need more of this — in Providence and around the world. We all focus so much on the negative, which certainly impacts all of us, but there’s more to it in these young people’s lives.”
The youth participants were paid for participating in the workshops through a grant partnership with the Papitto Opportunity Connection, a nonprofit private foundation. It inspired some to think outside their own comfort zones.
Jetrie Ndikumwenayo, 16, painted a massive plate of rice and beans — the “international dish that cultures across the world eat.” He’s involved with PVD World Music whose founder, Chance Kinyange Boas, is his uncle. Boas moved to the US in 2008 from Burundi after growing up in a refugee camp.
“I want to go back to where I’m from in Africa and see how my community is forced to live, the struggles they face, and see how I can help them,” Ndikumwenayo said.
“This mural represents everyone around the world,” said Prince Kollie, 18, who pointed to a peace circle. “The world’s people live in South Providence. And I just hope that when people go by this painting, they stop and realize that it tells a story of not just a single piece of art, but multiple.
“I see different tribes, people, places, and even intimate memories of pain and happiness,” added Kollie. “This is the story of us.”
This mural can be viewed at The Avenue Concept’s headquarters at 304 Lockwood St. in Providence.