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Students reimagine the American Dream through art

Students at the Eliza B. Kirkbride School created a mural to reflect their individual American Dreams.

Mayor Jim Kenney attended the “American Dreams” mural dedication last week at the Eliza B. Kirkbride School.

Photo provided by Ellie Seif

Although the American Dream once consisted of having a family, a good job and owning a house, today it has come to include a much wider variety of goals and ambitions. Thus, this past school year the Eliza B. Kirkbride, 1501 S. 7th St., School sought to teach its students that it’s OK to have different views on what constitutes their individual American Dream, and together they spent the year working to create a mural that was unveiled on Thursday, June 15, reflecting this notion.

“This project has come together over several months of [the eighth graders] digging into [their] histories and personal stories and to bring to life [their] American Dreams that are a representation of [the] South Philadelphia community, of [their] families, cultures and roots” Principal Rebecca Julien said.

Helping to make this project possible, COSACOSA art at large, Inc., an organization that has dedicated its efforts to creating new public art specific to the concerns of Philadelphia neighborhoods since 1990, partnered with the school to guide the students through their artistic examination of the American Dream. In doing so, three COSACOSA teaching artists and six art assistants, along with three Kirkbride lead teachers and Julian encouraged this examination of the concept through original essays, poetry, interviews and visual art.

“The American Dream means happiness and success to me,” Samiyah Brown, an eighth-grade student, said. “Through this project I learned about lots of other people’s American Dreams and that not everyone has the same American Dream. I think this is a good thing because not everyone should have to follow the same Dream because it’s a free country.”

The possibility for this partnership came about after the Friends of Kirkbride shared news regarding the potential acquisition of a grant from the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates to ensure optimal health care, education, and family-centered resources for children and youth with disabilities.

“I think this is a very beautiful project and it’s been a pleasure to watch it develop from the beginning, which was just the conversation from what will this project look like all the way to the art making sessions,“ Tim Gibbon, director of the Picasso Project, a part of the Public Citizens for Children and Youth which awards grants of up to $5,000 to schools annually to support projects in creative, performing and digital arts, said. “Something that I think is so special about this is that it’s a great representation of the power of art education, which is so critical in our Philadelphia public schools.”

The 52 participating students were all able to connect and explore similarities between their family immigration stories, as well as the cultural traditions which their families and neighborhoods participate in. Through this conversation and collaboration, students found inspiration which they then channeled into art to create a 60-foot mural in a school hallway.

“This project gave me more hopes, and helped me to become more creative,” Diego Zacarias, another eighth-grade student, said. “There are numerous dreams that I’ve never thought about, but that are still really good dreams.”

Incorporated in this mural are miniature American Dream-related ceramic sculptures that represent a multitude of the students’ hopes and dreams. Radiating from outstretched human hands, they depict the needs and hopes that “transcend boundaries of culture and community.”

Along with the project’s participants and instructors, Mayor Jim Kenney was in attendance at the mural’s unveiling. Ad- dressing the students, he explained how no groups of people are descendants of immigrants chose to make the transition to life in America. Thus, in his opinion almost everyone is an descendant and has a place in the “sanctuary city” that is Philadelphia.

“We all have the privilege of being in this country because we chose to be in this country,” Kenney said. “Everyone has a right to come to this country, I don’t care if you’re Mexican, Hispanic, Asian, African, it doesn’t matter. This country exists because that statue in the harbor of New York means what it says; ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”

In closing his remarks, Kenney pointed out the diversity that exists within the Kirkbride School in particular, calling it “beautiful” and noting that much of the news regarding immigrants that is coming out of Washington lately, especially from the president, is “disgraceful.” As mayor, he said he is committed to keeping immigrants in Philadelphia safe, and will do everything in his power to ensure their rights, leading them to fulfilling their “American Dreams.”

“Continue doing the good work that you’re doing, and continue moving on in your life,” Kenney told the students. “You’re going to go to high school next year, then you’re going to go to college if you choose, or you’re going to find a career and you’re going to be great Americans.”

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