During a time when nothing feels certain, two Berkeley High School (BHS) students have hatched a plan to make change by creating something lasting. In June 2020, Shayla Avery, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), reached out to Independent Studies (IS) senior Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer with an idea to create a mural at BHS that would stand with Black students and make them feel valued on campus. In addition to honoring Black lives wrongfully taken, the mural intends to appreciate freedom fighters and change makers. It also plans to interlace topics such as feminism and the COVID-19 pandemic, making a powerful statement about the importance of intersectionality. The proposed location on the BHS wall facing Martin Luther King Jr. Way is significant not only because it is named after a prominent civil rights leader, but also because it was one of the main streets used for redlining in Berkeley.
Avery’s idea for the project came from a desire to make the impact of marching in protests last. “My first protest was about how we didn’t feel heard, I didn’t feel heard and I reached out to other Black students, my peers at Berkeley High, and the majority don’t feel heard or represented,” she said.
After protesting, it seemed that the staff and administration were listening to the students, and Avery wanted to make sure that it didn’t end there.
On the mural’s impact, Avery said, “I want it to be inspiring for all the Black students at Berkeley High, and community members to see that we feel supported by our school.” Schneider-Dwyer has additional hopes about what students and community members may get from the mural. “Even though our school is very diverse, that does not mean that it is equitable or integrated, and I want it to represent a certain type of accountability,” Schneider-Dwyer said. “Another huge thing is to remind students about honoring Black women period, [who] have been at the front lines pushing for change,” she added.
No matter how people interpret the mural, Schneider-Dwyer’s goal is to get them thinking about the movement. “What are we going to do to keep this movement alive? How to really push for solidarity and liberation?” she asked.
Using art as a form of activism is not a new concept. However, Avery, who is commissioner of the arts at BHS, doesn’t just see them as connected, but as one and the same. “Activism is just a way of expressing yourself, and it’s art,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s a divide with them. You can’t have one without the other and protest is a form of art,” she explained.
However, what is the impact of art if we cannot gather to see it? Will it have the same effect if it is shared virtually and not viewed in person for perhaps years? Though no one can be sure of how the context around this piece will change, Schneider-Dwyer is confident that time will not lessen its power. “It’s not some big performative act, it’s a process, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about it,” she said. “I think that how COVID is going to impact it is it’s going to stretch out the care and dedication to honoring this. I don’t think it can ever be forgotten and I don’t think it should be, so in some ways I look at the very prolonged process as a symbol in itself,” she added.
The design itself is still evolving, but there are a few set ideas. At the center of the mural, there will be a Black woman with an afro, which will be made up of portraits of lesser-known freedom fighters. Included there will be images of people who have contributed to the Black community in Berkeley and at BHS. Avery and Schneider-Dwyer also plan to include the names of Black people whose lives have been taken unjustly, and the woman in the center will be wearing a mask in light of the current circumstances regarding COVID-19.
Avery and Schneider-Dwyer have realized that painting a mural on school property involves many logistics. On top of being in contact with a muralist for help on the design, they met virtually with a Berkeley School Board candidate for assistance with the approval process, and are in touch with Berkeley Unified School District officials to ensure their mural meets all requirements. Their next steps are getting it on the school board agenda and presenting their proposal to a committee of Berkeley citizens and board members. Avery feels good about their chances, and said: “I’m hopeful. So far everyone that I’ve been in contact with thinks that most people will want it to be approved.”
They have been informed that the school should cover part of the cost of creating the mural, and they plan to make a GoFundMe campaign to raise additional money. With COVID-19, completion will take more time than anticipated, possibly years. However, Schneider-Dwyer points out, “That’s what comes with getting something that’s really important and permanent approved.”
Avery will be sending a callout to students in the coming weeks to garner support and create momentum. For further questions, voicing your support, or to get involved, you can contact Shayla and Ultraviolet at their emails [email protected] and [email protected].