The question on the paper in front of him read, “What do you think people assume about you by just looking at you?”
The high school senior answered in five words: “I am a living problem.”
It was a sentiment art teacher Kristen Yoder would see again and again as she read through the questionnaires she had given her students at Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore.
Another student wrote, “Some people see me as a threat.”
Another: “Society assumes we are animals. They think we are a negative lifeform and should be subtracted from society.”
When Yoder and her former college roommate Deanna Wardin, a San Francisco tattoo artist, decided to launch an art project at Renaissance last year, neither knew what to expect. They were sure only of this: The conversation about black youth in Baltimore needed to include their voices and reach beyond the city.
The result was an unusual collaboration between more than 50 artists from across the country and students at one of the most troubled schools in Baltimore. The project, Breaking Frames, which is now hanging at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in downtown Baltimore, features original works based on the students’ words.
Taken together, the pieces provide insight into the lives of young people who have experienced more loss than many of their peers and attend a school at risk of closure. The city’s school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 13 on whether to shutter the school, along with four others.
Renaissance sits next to a notorious housing project, about a mile from where the Freddie Gray riots erupted in April 2015. Last school year, it lost three students to violence, including 17-year-old Ananias Jolley, who was fatally stabbed in a biology class.
It was after two more students died that Yoder and Wardin, both 31, came up with the idea for the art project. Yoder said their hope was that it would not only give students a forum to express themselves, but also provide a way for their stories to resonate with people with little connection to West Baltimore. Artists from as far away as California and Alaska participated.
Yoder’s favorite part of the project has been showing the students the finished pieces.
“Just knowing someone had to spend hours thinking about them and their stories is very powerful to them,” she said. “The artwork we got was outstanding and I think that shocked the kids a little bit. They were clearly taken very seriously.”
More than $3,000 worth of art has sold, and the rest is being auctioned online through the Breaking Frames website until Dec. 11. Yoder said the proceeds will benefit the students, who will decide how best to spend the money.
Artist Maceo Anthony Cooper-Jenkins, who grew up in Prince George’s County and works at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School as an instructional coach, said he didn’t think twice about participating.
His work was based on the words of Gregory Rochester, now 17, who wrote how seeing people killed for “dumb stuff,” along with police killings, “make you don’t want to go outside.”
“I almost got stabbed just for having something that that person didn’t have,” the teenager wrote, “but this my city so I love my city.”
In Cooper-Jenkins’s piece titled “Caution,” Rochester’s face is reflected in a gold-rimmed mirror in front of a black hoodie. The gold, the artist said, “symbolizes treasure, hope, value.”
“It speaks to some of the things we overlook a lot of the times when we look at these kids,” he said. “There is a piece of gold in everybody, whether they decide to show it or not, whether or not others decide to dig deep and uncover it.”
The questionnaires Yoder gave the students also asked about their favorite foods, their favorite person and where they would go if they could travel anywhere in the world. Other students answered the latter with “Paris” and “China” and “outer space.”
Rochester wrote, “Pittsburgh.”
Before he participated in the project, Rochester said no one had ever asked him any of those questions. He said he saw the project as a rare opportunity “to tell people how I feel and what I’ve been through.” He said he often worries about his younger siblings, ages 9 and 14 — and sometimes for his own safety.
“Sometimes I think too much,” he said. “And sometimes I just be like everybody got a day to go. So if you go, you go.”
After Jolley was killed in December, school administrators tried to turn his death into a motivating mantra, handing out T-shirts that read “Graduate for Jolley!” In the months that followed, the school also mourned Darius Bardney, 16, who was killed in an apparent accidental shooting at an apartment building and Daniel Jackson, 17, who was shot less than two miles from the school.
The losses were cited in a statement from Baltimore City Public Schools about why Renaissance is facing possible closure, which a spokeswoman sent to The Washington Post in response to a request for comment.
“Last year a number of tragic events occurred in and around the school, and the effects continue to be felt by students and staff,” it reads. “Closing this program will allow students to pursue high school graduation in higher quality programs.”
Renaissance occupies the dilapidated third floor of a middle school, and Principal Nikkia Rowe has long said that the school needs a new building. But she has also touted the efforts the staff has made in forging relationships with students who arrive with many disadvantages. The school works closely with the University of Maryland School of Social Work through an initiative called Promise Heights, and Renaissance was recently the recipient of a $350,000 federal grant to expand its mentoring program, which employs black men with backgrounds similar to the students’.
Rochester said that even if the school is closed, it wouldn’t affect him directly since he will have graduated by then. But he worries about the students and staff who will remain. If anyone takes anything away from the art project, he said, he hopes it is this: “We are good people. Some people might have their bad ways but we’re still good.”
Yoder said the most striking part of the students’ writings was not reading what they believed people assumed about them. That she already knew, she said. It was reading their answers to the next question: “What about you do people not get to know when they choose to stereotype you?”
“I am loyal, I am respectful, I love my family very much,” an 18-year-old boy wrote.
“I like to help people, that is why I want to be a nurse,” a 16-year-old girl wrote.
“People don’t get to see how smart I am,” wrote the same young man who called himself a “living problem.” “How I’m an educated young black man, how I also took on the responsibilities of being the man of the house, how I’m employed and how proud I’m going to make my mother June 3, which is my graduation date.”