The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Make sure more faces won’t be added to this mural’: 16-year-old memorializes slain D.C. teens

Lauryn Renford, 16, stands in front of the wall where she is organizing a mural commemorating her slain boyfriend, Zaire Kelly, and other youth victims of gun violence. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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In her imagination, the faces of the dead are bright and alive, daring people to see them as they once were: youthful, energetic, full of potential. Not what they have become — teenagers whose lives were cut short by gunfire.

It is a vision Lauryn Renford has been honing for months, since her boyfriend was shot and killed in an attempted robbery last year.

The 16-year-old is leading an effort to feature his face among several others in a mural she hopes will keep the issue of gun violence and youth casualties on the minds of D.C. residents.

“When people look at it, I want it to be like a fallen soul looking back at you and asking why,” said Lauryn, who just finished her junior year at Southeast charter school Thurgood Marshall Academy. “I think those visuals push people toward empathy and make them realize that you can be doing more to make sure more faces won’t be added to this mural.”

For Lauryn, fighting gun violence is as personal as it is political.

She was just 15 when her boyfriend Zaire Kelly, 16, was shot dead in late September on his way home from a college prep class.

Zaire’s sudden death rattled his family, school and community. Lauryn struggled to make sense of it, to find meaning in an act of random violence.

She eventually found comfort in Tibetan Buddhist teachings that focus on the inevitability of death and the importance of making every moment count — because, the teachings say, death is guaranteed and can happen at any time.

It got her thinking about how Zaire used his time, how kind he was, how generous, how loved.

She began thinking about how she could make her own time count, how she could use her pain to make a difference in her community.

One day, she said, the idea for the mural came to her.

Six weeks after Zaire was killed, she started an online petition to the D.C. Department of Public Works, asking them to support a public art project memorializing slain teenagers in the District.

Support was slow at first.

Then 17 people were killed in a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Students who survived the Parkland, Fla., massacre became forceful young voices calling for increased gun control and an end to gun violence.

A national listening tour ahead of the group’s March for Our Lives protest in Washington brought several student activists to Thurgood Marshall Academy.

In between helping to lead a rally at her school and preparing for the big demonstration down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 24, Lauryn mentioned her idea to the Parkland teens.

Hours later, Parkland student and activist Cameron Kasky tweeted the link to her petition. It was shared hundreds of times.

This summer, as Lauryn’s new friends from Parkland set off on a national bus tour aimed at registering young people to vote and talking to them about gun reform, Lauryn said her work in D.C. will take a different tack.

“D.C. is a federal territory with no representation,” she said. “So, I think our efforts will be much more visible if we work to cultivate community and dig into the roots of violence and the causes of violence. We can vote, and that’s a valuable step, but we have to do more than that.”

Which brought her back to the mural.

Lauryn has emerged as a leading voice among D.C. youth activists pushing for stricter gun control measures and protesting a surge in homicides throughout the District. Invigorated by the outpouring of support from all over the country and the steady uptick in killings in the District, Lauryn knew she needed to turn her idea into a reality.

But she still did not have a wall.

Then one day, her teacher and mentor, Karen Lee, stumbled across an art space on Capitol Hill known as The Fridge.

It was covered in paint, decked out in murals and graffiti doodles and designs.

Lee went in and asked if the owner knew where a 16-year-old girl might be able to erect a mural of her own.

Alex Goldstein, artist and owner of The Fridge, said as soon as he heard about Lauryn’s idea, he wanted to help.

“I was so blown away by her and her idea that when (Lee) asked me, I promised I would find her a wall,” Goldstein said.

So, he did.

Right across the alley.

The rectangular brick wall sits in an alley between 9th and the historic 8th Street in the heart of Capitol Hill. People often use the path to cut from one street to another.

Lee came across it on her way to meet friends for brunch.

This, Lauryn said, is exactly the kind of crowd she wants to reach: D.C. residents heading to a trendy restaurant or shop, commuters, visitors and crowds looking for a good time. People for whom the idea of teenagers being gunned down may not be a daily reality.

“I wanted to create a space where people could be living their everyday lives, not thinking about kids being shot and killed in the poorest corners of the city, and then they’d see the mural,” Lauryn said. “I want to make people uncomfortable and encourage them to have those hard conversations about what’s happening in this city and to use their power and privilege to do something about the issue.”

The structure of which the wall is a part is a brick car park owned by Goldstein.

He met Lauryn and Lee out in front of it last week to go over their thoughts — and what they still need to finalize.

It is a long list.

Securing an artist and funding is near the top. Then they need to decide which faces will go on the wall.

Lauryn has been keeping track of youth killings in D.C., trying to identify those who might join Zaire on the wall. The list of candidates to choose from have only grown since September.

Violent crime has fallen in nearly every category this year, except one. The District has seen a 51 percent uptick in homicides, with 65 deaths reported as of Wednesday.

Of those, 31 have occurred in Ward 8, neighborhoods that include Anacostia, Congress Heights and Washington Highlands.

Nine teenagers have been slain this year, comprising roughly 14 percent of all homicides in D.C.

Three infants — two year-old babies and one 2-year-old — have also been killed.

“Lauryn’s goal is to create a singular conversation in a city that isn’t having one unified conversation about gun violence,” Lee said. “Some people don’t want to be reminded of the hard, and other people can’t leave the hard behind. I think this wall has the potential to bring those two groups together.”

Standing in the alley with Lee and two schoolmates on Friday, Lauryn stood back, surveying her canvas. Something was different.

A new addition since the last time she visited.

She smiled as she took it in.

A one-word message scrawled in silver paint that seemed to her as much a battle cry as a tag: