In the littered pavement desert of Adeline Street, above the Ashby BART, Youth Spirit Artwork’s “Healthy South Berkeley” painted benches are oases of vibrant color.
Led by the Rev. Alan Laird, a local artist, outreach worker and former gallery owner, 10 “at-risk” teenagers are working to beautify Adeline Street and spread a message of healthy living. As part of the project, the youths are painting 10 street-side benches along Adeline from Ashby to 62nd Street and will help with eight mosaic street barricades and three tiled traffic turnarounds.
“We’re creating a positive language in the community, a dialogue about how to stay vital and stay alive in a challenging community,” Laird said. “We’re in a neighborhood where we can help spread that message.”
The group walks daily from Berkeley Technology Academy as part of Youth Spirit Artworks, an interfaith nonprofit that aims to help empower teenagers by teaching urban art as an instrument of individual and social change. A collaborative project of the City of Berkeley Department of Public Health and Youth Works program, Youth Spirit is funded by grants from the San Francisco Foundation’s Koshland and FAITHS Initiative programs, the Berkeley Public Education Foundation and local business sponsors.
The theme of this year’s project is healthy living and health disparities within the community. With painted messages like, “Drink H20” and, “Violence is not the key,” the benches promote health for body, mind and community alike.
“We’ve started building a little community of our own, where no one has a bad idea, where everyone can contribute,” Laird said. “It builds a sacred space and time in which we can create and talk and invest in the community.”
For Laird, the program is an opportunity to help teens learn to express themselves through art. Although he was working as a prison re-entry counsel for Expressions Outreach Ministries in Miami, Laird jumped at the invitation to take part in the Youth Spirit Artworks program, leaving Miami with nothing but a one-way ticket to San Francisco.
Laird says that he’s seen students who claim they “can’t do art” develop the power of self-expression and pride in their creativity.
Chana Trahan, 17, likes the project because it gives him an opportunity to work creatively.
“We paint what we want to paint,” Trahan said. “And then after we’re done working we can walk to our friends’ houses and brag.”
“I like the designs, coming up with them,” said Fatima Rodriguez. “Alan just told us to paint something inspiring.”
Laird hopes the project will successfully touch both the teens involved and community residents who use the benches.
“I believe that we all have the power to empower each other,” Laird said. “It
doesn’t cost any money, just a little time and compassion.”