The Brown Arts Initiative, the Providence Student Union and a group of local artists unveiled a series of three billboards on May 28 along local roadways that highlight an ongoing campaign “to secure a safe, healthy and engaging school environment for all students” through a national Student Bill of Rights, according to a May 18 BAI press release.
The billboard series was developed collaboratively between twelve PSU youth artists — Grace Doyle, Itamar Encarnacion, Athena Holloway, Melissa Lin, Kylie Lopez, Jaileen Vargas-Garcia and six other youth artists — as well as local artists and project facilitators Erik DeLuca, visiting assistant professor of music and multimedia at the University, Jazzmen Lee-Johnson MA ’15 and W.F. Umi Hsu.
Beginning in March and spanning ten weeks, the youth artists met virtually each week with the facilitators and learned design and storytelling techniques. The group also had “discussions about art’s relationship to social justice, equity and the power of education,” according to the press release.
Encarnacion, who worked with two other student artists on a billboard centered on self-expression, diversity and student safety, began the process of designing the billboard by brainstorming an underlying message with her group. They worked through several different ideas for their billboard before settling on and creating the final product: a text-based billboard that reads, “To express identity ensure security” and “To bring diversity incorporate variety.” Encarnacion said she hopes the straightforward design can convey “a message for people to understand more easily” as they drive past it in Providence along Interstate 95.
For Encarnacion, the project was an important way to voice the needs of today’s Providence students — needs she feels affect the city as a whole.
“Everyone should be concerned about (students) because we are part of the community and we’re going to be adults some day, and the things that affect us affect our families,” she said. “So, if we want free public transportation to go to schools or extracurricular activities, or we want safe schools that represent us and have staff that care for us and uplift all of our identities, it’s for the better of everyone.”
Kylie Lopez, whose billboard focused on students’ transportation concerns, explained that her group “wanted people to understand that students are in a position where they do have all these awesome rights which allow them to learn, but not all of them are up-to-date.” To express students’ growing need for transportation accessibility, Lopez’s group designed a billboard featuring a stick figure person in front of a map of Providence with words reading: “Give free bus passes to all students.”
While initially she found the design process somewhat “overwhelming,” ultimately getting to work on the project proved to be a meaningful experience for Lopez. “I actually hadn’t done anything like this before. It was so amazing seeing my art come to life off of the highway,” she said. “I’ve been past it so many times and each time it’s so surreal.”
The idea for the series began in September 2020 when BAI contacted DeLuca to work together on a project, and he suggested they collaborate with an organization focused on educational equity. “Education is central to expression and to hope and to life,” DeLuca said.
Later that month, DeLuca reached out to PSU, an educational rights organization that primarily serves the Providence Public School District, and they began to discuss ideas for how to highlight the Student Bill of Rights through art and design. “For the first month we really were just talking to each other about what we do and thinking through the ways that art and design can be used to empower and be used to reach people and connect with people,” he said.
Following the suggestion of a PSU student member, BAI and PSU ultimately decided to collaborate on a student-led billboard project.
DeLuca said the experience of working on the project gave him a new point of view on the day-to-day experiences of Providence youth. Hearing students share their stories about transportation issues in getting to school and their extracurriculars, for example, was illuminating for DeLuca, and eventually led to the creation of a billboard advocating for all students to receive free bus passes.
“Because these high school students were actively making the work … (we) were getting into their world and the things that they need in education and school” through the medium of an artistic project, he said.
In selecting artists Lee-Johnson and Hsu to serve as teaching staff and facilitators for the project, choosing artists who were Providence residents and people of color was important, Precious Lopez, co-executive director of PSU, said. “We want them to represent the community which Providence Student Union serves.”
Hsu, who heard about the billboard series through DeLuca, has previously worked on socially conscious projects, including a skywriting art project centered on themes of incarceration, family separation and immigrant detention centers in the United States as well as musical compositions incorporating field recordings of social activism and communities.
“I thought, ‘Okay, well how cool would it be to work with young people and to help them uplift their voices,’” Hsu said, “especially in this time when I feel like there’s a lot of noise around and it’s really difficult to cut through and get heard.”
The project has allowed students to “really speak from their own experience and not have it translated for them,” Lee-Johnson said.
“It’s just important to hear from young people. We don’t hear from them enough,” Lee-Johnson added. “They will be on the planet long after elders move on, so it’s important to know what they’re thinking about and feeling and what’s important to them. And I think a project like this allows for those conversations to happen.”
The billboards are currently displayed on Eddy Street, Orms Street and along Interstate 95 near Black Street, and will remain in these locations indefinitely.
With reporting by Emily Faulhaber
Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.