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A Colorful Legacy: A Mural Arts Story

Author: Laure Biron, MSS, LSW, is the Porch Light Program Director for Mural Arts Philadelphia. Also a practicing psychotherapist, she has worked for Mural Arts since 2008, beginning in the Art Education department and working additionally in Restorative Justice, Special Projects, and currently, the Porch Light Program

At Mural Arts, we believe that hands-on art-making provides a strong pathway for individual and community healing.  Our Porch Light program, a joint collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, focuses on achieving universal health and wellness among Philadelphians, especially those living with mental health issues or trauma. We do this by providing opportunities to contribute to meaningful works of public art.

Alongside the mural-making workshops and paint days that have taken place across our city, a series of important conversations have been crafted for audiences around Philadelphia to talk about what barriers and disparities exist for their health.  How does bias and racism impact the health of our communities, and especially, for men and boys of color?  One shining example comes to mind.

mural arts colorful legacy by willis nomo humphrey and keir johnston
Colorful Legacy by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey & Keir Johnston. Photo by Steve Weinik.

In 2015 Mural Arts Philadelphia Porch Light Program completed a critical project as part of our Signature Project series in West Philadelphia. Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Kier Johnston worked tirelessly with a core group of participants at Congreso, Pro-Act and Diversified Community Services to create an incredible mural for Chestnut Street, “Colorful Legacy“. The mural came about in response to the “My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge“, and a year-long project created in partnership with DBHIDS’s then relatively new Engaging Males of Color initiative, now known as EMOC, and led by Gabriel Bryant.

Launched by President Obama in 2014, My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge was a call to action for cities, Tribal Nations, towns, and counties to build and execute robust plans to ensure that all young people – no matter whom they are, where they came from, or the circumstance into which they were born – can achieve their full potential.

Sadly, in December 2018, we lost Willis “Nomo,” who had been a critical member of our Mural Arts family. With his passing, it seemed to me more important than ever that we talk about health disparities in communities of color and talk about how men and boys manage their health, mental health and overall wellness.

Continuing with our mission and partnership with DBHIDS, in May 2018 EMOC hosted the first in a new series of health and wellness community town halls.  Chad Lassiter from the Pennsylvania Human Resources Commission set the tone for the panel for a space of safety, for complex and difficult thinking and conversation, and for exploration, truth and vulnerability.

Panelists offered a raw and honest personal and professional opinions and ideas about barriers, disconnects and challenges within our health system and culture, around health and its care, and lack of care, for men and boys of color.

As an artist and a clinical social worker, I was struck at the end by the multiple panelists who spoke to the power of art, artistic and creative expression, and alternative approaches to recovery, treatment and wellness.  I have seen, as the director of an art and mental health program, that healing and health can be improved by art because art can address so many dimensions of wellness, including the physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, and occupational.

It is a critical aspect of culture, communication, expression, and recovery, a connection that has been articulated by the Porch Light Program Final Evaluation, Yale University School of Medicine.

When Willis and Kier started their project, their curriculum was based on talking to participants about music, art, and fashion. It was about culture and an exploration of the origins of aspects of self- expression; on its surface, perhaps not a health curriculum.

However, as time passes and I think more about A Colorful Legacy and the process and conversations we had in creating it, I understand how and why it was deeply rooted in health.  The panel in late February, (the kick off for the new series of events), cemented the understanding, that we cannot take art, music and artistic and personal creative expression for granted as a critical aspect of overall health.

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