Freedom Ride | In the Classroom | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Freedom Ride 

click to enlarge Brandon Christiansen, Mary Haddad, and Jenine Tobias in front of the BLM mural they helped create
  • Brandon Christiansen, Mary Haddad, and Jenine Tobias in front of the BLM mural they helped create

In May 2020, protests against racism, systemic injustice, and police brutality spread across the country. Around the same time, Oakwood Friends School put up a Black Lives Matter banner, which 18-year-old Mary Haddad often saw as she drove by. Haddad, who attends the DCC Bridge Program full-time and lives close to Oakwood, noticed that the banner was sometimes missing from its place. “It was going up and down, and I thought, ‘something smells fishy,’” she says. Soon after, she saw posts on social media about it being stolen, thrown in the woods, even burned.

“I was frustrated and angry—I didn’t know how to react. I thought I’d try to create something to replace it,” Haddad says. It was supposed to be a solo project—but when she contacted Oakwood to find out if the spot was private property—they loved the idea. 

Elizabeth Phelps Meyer, Upper School art teacher at Oakwood Friends School, says, “It was good to know that local community members and youth pay attention and care about what is happening in their neighborhood, even if it is at a private school that might seem somewhat separated from them as public school students. I thought it was brave and remarkable that Mary reached out over that perceived distance to initiate a project and, just as importantly, new relationships between us as neighbors.” Phelps Meyer helped source materials, arrange times, and supervise space for the students to work on what became the eight-by-twelve-foot mural now making its way across the Hudson Valley.

This was around September 2020, and at the time, students like Oakwood senior Brandon Christiansen were growing more distressed than usual about the treatment of Black people in the country. He explains, “I was and still am stressed about the safety of my family, friends, and myself. The violence was getting more public, and it was very painful not being able to do much as a boarding student who was unable to go out to march with other protesters. Hearing about Mary’s plans for the mural was a massive relief to me.” 

Sophomore Jenine Tobias, a boarding student from New York City, says, “I thought from what I’d seen at Oakwood that the community outside would be the same. When the banner was taken, I figured it wasn’t everything I thought it would be. Then I saw people so eager to work on this mural, and I met other young people in the community with the same views—it felt great.”

Since senior Ann PierreLouis, a boarding student from New Jersey, and student-clerk at Oakwood, hadn’t interacted too much with the community outside of the school, the burning of the banner was especially unsettling. “It’s one thing to take it down, but to bring a fire hazard and potentially hurt yourself and everyone. I hadn’t experienced the sort of extreme violence of this racist interaction in my four years here. The support I believed was around me just kind of came tumbling down,” she says. Meeting Haddad soon after helped immensely. “It felt like there was someone out there who did support us,” PierreLouis says.

After connecting with Oakwood, Haddad researched the stories of people affected by systemic injustices and police brutality to include in the group portrait, then created a digital collage. “I have a book full of names, which is so upsetting,” Haddad says. Oakwood student Jareth Stokum helped her kickstart the color coordination. The mural—projected onto six sections over three primed panels—was finished in paint-by-numbers sessions by 47 students between the ages 11 and 18. 

During the process, PierreLouis explains, “There was laughter, but there were also tears, and anger and confusion that we were able to express because it was a safe space. Some days we’d go in and think, ‘Now I have to paint this face of this person who looks like me, who was killed—what am I going to do?’ But there was such an air of acceptance—it meant a lot.”

Christiansen adds that although the mural may not be society-altering, it was a therapeutic process. “It made me slow down and take the time to process some of this trauma, create something inspiring, and pay tribute to the lives of the people on this mural,” he says. 

As Tobias puts it, “It’s a beautiful painting done collaboratively for a common cause, and a good reminder of the beauty we can bring out of something so horrible, and so sad.”

“I don’t know if it reinstated my faith in the community, but it definitely reinstated my faith in younger generations,” Haddad adds. 

The mural, unveiled at Oakwood on April 17, reads “All Black Lives Matter” across the top and “Say Their Names” at the bottom. About the text, Haddad says, “I put All Black Lives Matter because it encompasses disabled black people, nonbinary, trans Black people. Your ability, age, knowledge, sexual orientation, religion, creed—none of it matters—you’re a human being, and you need to be acknowledged and respected as one.” 

While Haddad is not sure where the piece will end up, she says, “I kind of just want it to be somewhere where it’s doing something—sparking conversations.” 

The mural is at the Cornell Creative Arts Center in Kingston until June 18. It will move to a Juneteenth Commemoration at Mansion Square Park in Poughkeepsie on June 19; in Poughkeepsie through July; and the Art Effect’s Trolley Barn Gallery in Poughkeepsie from September 10 through October 14.

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