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City Year Milwaukee MLK Day: The Art of Change

CYMKE MLK Day 2024

“The men and women who rode the freedom buses through Alabama, who walked in Montgomery, who knelt in prayer in Albany, who hold and sing “We Shall Overcome Someday” in the face of hostile mobs — their acts cry out for songs to be sung about them, and pictures to be painted of them” (Davis, 2023).

This was a preface that Dr. King wrote for the Freedom Riders art exhibit in 1963. Dr. King understood the role art plays in telling a story and changing the narrative.  

In honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his dedication to service, City Year Milwaukee hosted their annual service project this month in partnership with Lloyd Barbee Montessori School. It was truly a representation of unity within the community in order to create change, as was wonderfully iterated by one of the volunteers who stated, “It’s just a beautiful reflection of different people doing work that’s going to beautify the hallways.”  In doing so, several of the volunteers I talked with voiced how these displays of art would impact the students by changing their perspective of their school and their learning. I had a beautiful conversation with Thanisha, community volunteer, at the end of the day. “I feel like I was a part of something that was really great. Something that’s going to touch the hearts of the kids who come in here. They don’t need to know that I was the one who came in to do it. I just really want them to be happy! To come in a say ‘oh my gosh, look at this, look at that, it’s so cool!’” 

Anna, a City Year Sacramento Alum now Milwaukee resident, was with us and brought an honorary guest, her mom Wilma, who was visiting from Colorado. She touched on the reason behind the work saying, “It always reconnects me to the why and the purpose behind, not only that of the organization, but also building community with schools and developing future leaders and helping to inspire them. School was hard for me. Wanting to stay focused in it and finding what I wanted to do in it. So, thinking about how this mural can help a student or someone struggling with reading like I used to. to be able to see words on a wall and practice to sound them out, that’s kind of helped the why behind it and then know that its going to change their perspective on what a school can be and should be for them.” 

This day could not have gone on without the dedication of our incredible Civic Engagement team that worked tirelessly in the months leading up and each of the incredible 200+ volunteers that walked through the doors of Lloyd Barbee on January 15th. This event was a spectacular success! Over 50 murals were painted, several flowerbeds and benches were built, and about 300 winter care bags were made with materials provided by United Way.  

CYMKE MLK Day 2024

I got many inspiring quotes throughout the day as I had the opportunity to go around and inquire about the experience of our volunteers. When I see art, it has a way of changing my mood and emotions rise up. So, when talking with our volunteers, I wanted to tap into the feelings that being creative sparked within each individual, as they worked on these projects and saw them come to fruition. I appreciated the authenticity and transparency in the responses that I got. Some said they felt frustrated. Painting murals was not something they felt gifted in, but they were able to give it their all and remain positive. From that, they expressed gratitude for the opportunity to do something they maybe wouldn’t have tried. Kim, who was working on a quote at the time, stated how, “it was great to feel diverse in the opportunity to do something a little different, and to gain an expressive outlet and appreciation for those people who can do art.” This response reminded me, that an appreciation for art is a necessary role in fueling the flame of creativity and continuation of the stories it tells.   Brenden, a junior in high school, came to the realization that even if someone doesn’t know how to do art, and they at least try to do it, it can actually come out very well.” He said how when he first started, he thought he might be doing a terrible job, but then when he saw the end result, he realized that he was able to create something beautiful.  

I look back on the day with such fondness. It was both an honor and a privilege to be able to talk with so many special people who devoted their day off to making a difference in the lives of the students who attend Lloyd Barbee Montessori. Shil said it best. “This was really a community project, people switching brushes, switching paints… its awesome to see the end result and how much we got done. I didn’t think we’d get through it all, but we’ve got every inch. Teamwork made the dreamwork.” It is a beautiful testimony of people in a community who come together to create change for our young people, who will someday have the opportunity to be the changemakers of the world.  



Davis B. (2023 January 12). ArtSEA: Honoring MLK Day with Seattle art. Crosscut.,to%20be%20painted%20of%20them.%E2%80%9D 

Public Broadcasting Service. (2014, May 23). Martin Luther King and the arts. PBS. Dr. Vincent Harding and Dr. Rachel Harding conducted interviews. 


Eliassah Larson Headshot

 About the author: Eliassah Larson is Gracefully serving as a first year AmeriCorps member at Dr. George Washington Carver Academy for Math and Science. The why behind her year of service encompasses the empowerment of youth and the founding story, whose origin comes from the constitution of the Iroquois nation, that talks about our impact on the 7 generations to come. Her desire is to show unconditional love to each scholar that she encounters.  

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