| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter


Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project

Youth in southwest Detroit are spending the summer beautifying their community, earning money, and learning about creative careers as part of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives’ Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project. Young people design murals, decide on locations, manage projects, and lead mural painting teams.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable? 
Urban Neighborhood Initiatives Human Development Director Christine Bell: It is the interaction -- this really is a program that encompasses a comprehensive approach that our organization takes to working with people in Springwells Village. In our youth employment mural program, young people are learning skills. They are also getting paid, and while they’re getting paid they’re addressing an issue that is a large concern to many people in the neighborhood, which is graffiti. Residents and business owners benefit in different ways; they can commission artwork, and they may never be able to do that in any other kind of venue. We also invest in the beautification of high traffic areas. We just had a meeting about high-traffic areas we can target for murals; having those conversations about community development with young people is really important. There’s also that person who drives around and gives them pizza, or the woman that lives next to the murals who is elderly and made a point of coming out and thanking us. She’s been looking at a garage with gang graffiti and she’s now coming out to see something beautiful. It’s reframing how people think about some young people and their ability.
The other thing that is really unique is that we focus on caring about what young people are saying, what their interests are,
...we focus on caring about what young people are saying, what their interests are, and what potentially they may want to do for the rest of their life.
and what potentially they may want to do for the rest of their life. We’re trying to hook them into certain fields and help them to explore what that can be.  Also, something very special is that even though there has been some criticism of using the College for Creative Studies roster of artists, we’ve had those artists volunteer and help young people put together their portfolios so they can get into art school.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Finding out that one of our young people went to college and made it through a year, and how instrumental and important our program and the professionals in our program were -- and how committed they were to seeing that happen and how committed that young person was to seeing that happen.
The other lesson would be that not everybody loves murals, and that we need to think really strategically about design and that maybe there are some other things that are also creative that we could do. For example, landscape design could also deter graffiti. We’re thinking about what else we could do around deterring graffiti that is not necessarily a mural project, but is something that is creative and that gives an outlet for creativity and allows the young people to have employment.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
The hardest lesson is how much this costs to fund. A hard lesson in addition to that is a resident saying, “hey this isn’t necessarily what everybody wants.” I had to think about that  -- how do we be strategic around high traffic areas? And how do we be thoughtful and strategic around what people want, as well?
What really differentiates this program?
That we have consistently operated this program since 2007, and that there is a community building aspect that young people start to pick up on. One year, many of the young people were not from the neighborhood, but reported that they felt
We use language that teaches what community development means.
were a part of neighborhood: they felt like they belonged, that this was important, and they were feeling a part of things. I don’t know how many places have rolled mural projects into youth employment. With other groups that do murals, almost 100 percent of volunteers came from the suburbs, and they had one person on the team kind of creating murals instead of making it a collaboration. These are young people that live in the community, and aside from that one year, these are actual residents of a neighborhood making decisions about how that neighborhood is going to look, and designing the murals from their frame of reference, and their culture and their lenses.
We use language that teaches what community development means. The teens could see how in a workplace they are part of a larger strategy and part of a larger picture around graffiti abatement and how their murals are a piece of that. While they are learning about designs, they are also learning about community development and youth development. The program also tends to attract boys, and boys that are not necessarily getting into good things -- that is really important as well, that we provide an outlet for them.
What are the keys to success for your program? 
Having the funding to do it. Something really exciting this year is that we’re finally getting to see the youth lead artists idea coming to fruition. In addition to their designing skills we are also adding management and leadership skills, so we’re adding another layer. It’s also really important to the continuation and development of the program. Ideally we would like the young people to be doing all administrative work and really flesh out the program.
I think having staff and adults working with young people that understand active learning and understand they are meeting young people where they are at and working with young people so that they grow as individuals as well as team members, as well as employees -- that there is patience there and a commitment to them -- is really important. The work couldn’t happen at all without young people who are interested in doing it and making sure the work has quality. Also, the commitment of our organization that values this project and that our organization sees that young people have the opportunity to be part of re-imagining their neighborhood and implementing what they imagine into their community is another key.
This program also validates young people that want to go into a creative field. We give confidence to young people that if their favorite class is art or if they see everything in watercolors, there is an outlet for them to do that and plenty of jobs for them to do that in.
How does your program organize the resources needed to make programs happen?  
The youth are paid through youth employment grants. We generally ask for money for our contract with CCS from different places. Sometimes we will have volunteers coming in and getting us supplies for graffiti removal. We’re trying to incorporate sealer into those asks: “if I buy five gallons, will you throw in one?” We’re thinking about it in the big picture of what each part of the program is attempting to do and weaving that into the different budgets and grants. People are starting to want our murals to be put somewhere. Fresh-Pak, the parent company of Aunt Mid’s, commissioned a mural and paid for everything but the wages for youth artists, because that was covered through another grant. We’re always trying to think about the most expensive part and how do we go about having people literally buy in. We have had a longstanding relationship with CCS -- they know our program pretty well. We have had the same artist for three years, and she has been essential to building our program. 
Signup for Email Alerts

Person Profile


  • Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI)
    UNI transforms struggling urban neighborhoods into safe, vibrant, cohesive communities. We accomplish this through comprehensive, collaborative action to address human and community development. Individuals and families become enthused as they ...


GreenFist Project at Sprout Urban Farms

How Motivated Kids and Better Food Access Fit Together

Stuart Ray, Mindy Ysasi, Mike Kerkorian, Ellen Carpenter from Grand Rapids' Nonprofits

Jumping Ship: Former Corporate Leaders Tell All

Detroit Future Schools

Flipping the Script on Teacher-and-Textbook Instruction

View All People


Infancy to Innovation list

Infancy to Innovation

Engaging families of color in identifying problems and solutions

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement Program

Improving K-2 reading

Music Makers list

Music Makers

Making music, building trust
View All Programs

Bright Ideas

ostdogood LIST

Company Supports 4th Grade Field Trips to Lake Michigan

Parents working more than one job or odd hours, a lack of funds, and no transportation often prevent kids from experiencing one of Michigan’s incredible natural resources. For the majority of west side Grand Rapids elementary school kids, Lake Michigan is sadly out of reach. OST has teamed up with Grand Rapids Public Schools to give fourth-graders at west side schools the opportunity to experience the big lake firsthand.


Youth Decide Where Grant Dollars are Spent

For Grand Rapids students who serve as trustees-in-training on the GRCF Youth Grant Committee, giving back to the community goes hand in hand with empowering students to succeed. 

TeenQuest thumb

TeenQuest helps future employees stand out above the crowd

As the economy continues to straighten itself out, there is no doubt any edge a first-time employee can get on entering the working world is important. TeenQuest is here to help.
View All Bright Ideas

Directly Related Content