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Using Street Art to Engage Teens in Social Emotional Learning
By Laura Shaw, MTS, and Mandy Noa, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 1 P. 26

A deeper, more intense examination of the beauty and message of murals and other pieces can improve community life.

Street art is creating art on exterior surfaces—often seen on walls of buildings and bridges in urban settings. The art form has evolved over the decades from a grassroots project using spray paint to mainstream popularity. First thoughts of street art typically wander to the graffiti of the 1960s and 1970s, but street art stretches back to ancient Roman walls where artists scratched celebrations of esteemed gladiators and diatribes about politicians (Take Flight 214, 2018, 00:51).

Although today’s street art history is intertwined with graffiti, much debate exists about whether graffiti is considered street art. Graffiti’s place in gang culture (originating in the 1920s), along with competitive “tagging,” cause some to wonder whether graffiti’s focused audience sets it apart (Take Flight 214, 2018, 1:18). There is also the issue of vandalism.

For the purpose of this article, street art, interchangeable with “public art,” is defined as art on exterior surfaces done with permission by the community.

The origins of modern public art were expensive monuments and structures commissioned by the wealthy and erected in public areas to honor religious and political leaders. Through evolution, the roots of street art shifted to rest in social and political commentary, giving voice to those often unheard. In the 20th century, the term evolved to incorporate the growing body of art created to speak for the people or advance social and political movements, like the Mexican and Works Progress Administration murals of the 1930s or the early community murals of the civil rights movement.

In the 1980s, Keith Haring used playful, colorful shapes and figures as advocacy for the AIDS movement. Jean-Michel Basquiat used expressive, scribbled marks to explore Black identity and empowerment. Other artists create bold pieces to draw attention to local community issues such as homelessness.

In countries where freedom of speech is limited, street art is a powerful form of expression and solidarity among citizens. For example, Venice, Italy, attributes its community revitalization in the 1970s to public art (Curiel, 2019). People of Latino and Hispanic heritage banded together to create murals sharing their stories and reactions to racism. Recently, street-sized Black Lives Matter paintings responded to racism and paid tribute to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

Murals and outdoor installations of this type exist all over the world. They are a form of activism that spurs the imagination. They are also a marker of the unique people and spaces making up a community. Younger generations pilgrimage to sites of outdoor work to engage with the art. Bringing these images into the classroom and spaces with teens engages them and ignites relevant conversations.

Conversation flows easily from admiring images, visiting sites, or participating in the creation of public art. Through guided questions, one can move through the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning’s five social emotional learning competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

These questions can be replicated with any piece of art. There is value in dissecting art in your local community to build community connection. Before sharing a piece, briefly research the artist and the name and location of the work—or research together with teens. Try selecting artists of diverse backgrounds whose works highlight various styles. This not only promotes diversity in the arts but also exposes young people to professional artists who look like them and empowers them to explore the arts as a viable career choice.

Being self-aware means having the ability to identify emotions and their connections to our bodies, thoughts, and behaviors. It calls us to recognize our strength, values, and individual characteristics. Start conversations reflecting on initial reactions to a piece of public art: What is the first thing you notice in this piece? What thoughts come up? What do you feel when you see this? How does that emotion feel in your body?

For pieces related to racism and oppression, feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration may arise. Move toward the behavioral connection: How would it shape your behavior each day if you passed this piece of art on your way to school? How do you think it shapes your community? Challenge teens to begin to recognize how a style compares with other styles of street art that the group has seen or explored.

How do different styles make you feel? What makes this piece of art or its style unique? From seeing this one piece of art, how would you describe or define the identity and values of the community? If possible, research the community to affirm or debunk these answers.

Have teens create their own street art mural on a sheet of paper. Prompt them to create a piece symbolic of themselves or one that addresses their current emotions.

Conversations on self-management focus on the ability to express emotions in a healthy way. When reflecting on initial feelings, ask teens to recall a time they felt a specific emotion. How did you express yourself when you experienced that emotion? Would you consider the expression healthy or unhealthy?

When art evokes strong feelings about racism or oppression, try not to judge or change your emotional reaction. Instead, discuss ways to harness those feelings for expression and change. What emotion or thoughts do you think the artist is trying to express? What is the value of expressing this through art and to anyone passing by? Have you ever tried expressing yourself through music, dancing, painting, or filmmaking? Describe that experience.

Street art often highlights marginalized populations or narratives of overcoming obstacles. In 1968, a Puerto Rican community in Boston’s South End fought displacement from the city during urban development (Lee, 2018). The nonprofit community development corporation Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción developed Villa Victoria, an affordable housing community that celebrated its 50th year in 2018 with a huge public art project in which community youth created various pieces to portray the community through their own eyes.

The director of the youth program said at the time, "We want to start from within. … Instead of focusing on the problems that are out—within the community, within the government, within the system—let’s first fix the problems that are within you … and then let that healing spread into the community.”

Have a conversation with teens about the meaning of resiliency. When have you overcome obstacles? Who and what helped you? What is a piece of art that expresses overcoming obstacles or mistakes? How does it inspire you? In any preferred style, have teens create a mural design on paper sharing their story of overcoming an obstacle.

Social Awareness
Art’s ability to encourage empathy means social awareness is a natural reverberation. With that being the case, explore pieces that respond to situations.

In San Francisco’s Clarion Alley, artist Megan Wilson painted a beautiful mural of “home” and “casa” directly on the streets in response to the numerous evictions and demolitions occurring in the area (Kukura, 2017). In Oakland, CA, Mike and John Manente created dignified images of people who are homeless in the area to humanize their stories (Parolek 2014). At the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta, murals were commissioned across the city to address social justice issues, from freedom of speech and immigration to access and education.

Many artists in 2020 responded to issues of racism and police brutality through murals. Explore these works of art through the lens of the population represented: Who is the subject? How is that person or group represented? If there’s a person depicted, what are the emotions and thoughts being displayed? How does this mural reflect ideas or a way of life similar to or different from your own?

Explore the art from the community’s perspective. What is the piece’s value to the community? Has a piece of art ever changed your idea of a group or an individual? Prompt students to create their own mural addressing an issue in the community. Where would you place the mural and why? What would you hope viewers would think or do after seeing it?

Relationship Skills
Because it interacts with the environment, the history, and relationships that exist in a specific place, public art establishes a sense of place in a particularly powerful way. Creating meaningful relationships and a deeper connection to place is essential to being invested and involved in one’s community, argues Robert Fleming, author of Place Makers: Public Art That Tells You Where You Are.

Fleming stresses the importance of filling the “landscape of the mind” by imbuing the meaningless space in which we reside with meaning through connections. He wrote, “By populating the mind with images of the community, its history, characters, stages of development, often with a decorative richness, whimsy, and even humor, place makers help us to restore a feeling of belonging, and with it perhaps a sort of inner harmony.”

Public art uniquely contributes to place making and a communal sense of identity and belonging by strengthening relationships to community and individuals. In her book On the Wall, Amy Goodwin wrote, “The true power of murals lies in their local, community impact: to see issues that resonate with real people, the oppressed, the poor, the overworked, the underrepresented. The process, the act of community building and collaboration, the beautification that community murals provide create intangible thread.”

This process is most powerful when community members are intimately involved with the creation process. In Shandon, Ireland, an area once known for cultural and economic stagnation, murals have revitalized the town over the past 15 years (Daley, 2017). Citizens engaged in story-sharing about their lives in the city, which inspired the pieces. “Older residents provided memories; younger residents helped design and instate the murals,” according to Goodwin.

Prompt teens to list a favorite family/cultural tradition. Pair or group the students without knowledge of their answers and have them share their experiences. Instruct the group to create an art piece that reflects all their traditions together.

Process the experience. What were your group strengths and weaknesses? How did you communicate? How did you create together and meaningfully incorporate everyone’s different identities and experiences? If your piece was a large-scale mural, would the process of working together strengthen your connection to each other and the community?

Responsible Decision Making
The ability to make responsible decisions requires forethought and clear thinking. The process of planning and creating art is a unique opportunity for teens to practice making choices in a safe space, and take ownership of their decisions and see how they directly result in a specific outcome in the product they create.

Street art can help young people understand how their decisions have an impact beyond themselves in a larger context—not only within the piece of art but also within the community. The understanding and connection to history is an important aspect of decisions within creative place making. However, a community’s identity is continually changing, so place-making art needs to incorporate the past as well as adapt for the future.

Organize teens into small groups to plan and design a multipanel mural that represents the past, present, and future of their community. Suggest they define community however they want—through their neighborhood, school, or city. What is a point of pride in the community’s history? How was that showcased? How does this aspect of history draw a direct line to today’s community? What’s in store for the community’s future? Think of three direct actions in daily life that can be building blocks for change. Brainstorm ways to encourage others in the community to make decisions or take actions that will positively impact the future.

For a follow-up activity, have teens create a persuasive campaign poster to educate others about one of their ideas.

Raquel Laneri (2009) wrote, "Public art lifts up humanity and challenges the individual who encounters it to think differently about the world.” The composition of art elements, the movement, colors, shapes, and shadows stir both the internal and external world.

Bringing art into social emotional learning adds the element of expression, a pivotal practice for teenagers. And using public art trains a new generation to participate in conversations with their communities and selves. Plus, in its own way, street art promotes a mindfulness practice of slowing down and engaging with surroundings.

Laura Shaw, MTS, is the executive director of Paint Love, a nonprofit agency that provides art programming to youth who have experienced poverty/trauma.

Mandy Noa, LCSW, is a school social worker and program director of Paint Love.


To see this article formatted as a curriculum with images of the art, visit gopaintlove.org/shop/streetartsel.


References and Resources
CASEL. (2020). Core SEL competencies. CASEL. https://casel.org/core-competencies/.

Curiel, S. (2019). The importance of street art. The Oarsman. https://veniceoarsman.com/7958/features/the-importance-of-street-art/.

Daley, B. (2017). How murals helped turn a declining community around. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-murals-helped-turn-a-declining-community-around-74979.

Fleming, R. (1987). Place makers: Public art that tells you where you are. Townscape Institute.

Goodwin, A. (2012). On the wall, forward. Art Makers NYC. http://www.artmakersnyc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=51&Itemid=56.

Kaler-Jones, C. (2020). When SEL is used as another form of policing. Medium. https://medium.com/@justschools/when-sel-is-used-as-another-form-of-policing-fa53cf85dce4#7746.

Kukura, J. (2017). Clarion Alley mural project turns 25: A historical primer. SFist. https://sfist.com/2017/10/20/clarion_alley_mural_project_turns_2/.

Laneri, R. (2009). Why we love—and need—public art. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/2009/05/05/state-of-the-city-opinions-george-rickey-public-art.html#655acc842be8.

Lee, A. (2018). Young people celebrate 50 years of Villa Victoria with ‘50 Portraits’ exhibit. The Artery. https://www.wbur.org/artery/2018/12/18/young-people-villa-victoria-50-portraits.

Parolek, D. (2014). The power of public art: How murals beautify cities and build communities. Opticos Design. https://opticosdesign.com/blog/the-power-of-public-art-murals/.

Take Flight 214. (2018). History of graffiti street art: And how the culture spawned [video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UGzjovT0Bo.