Youth artists created two mosaics to increase visibility at the busy intersection near Malcolm X School . Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Two new lively mosaics — one in warm reds and yellows, the other in cool blues and greens — greet passers-by on either end of the Ashby border of Malcolm X Elementary School.

It’s the block where a kindergartener was hit by a car while she was walking to school in 2009. After receiving surgery on her fractured skull, the girl miraculously survived, but the incident shook the community and marked the Ashby and Ellis Street intersection as a danger zone.

Five years later, young artists from Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) placed the final tile on the colorful structures designed to promote safety in the area and notify drivers that they’re near a school.

YSA is an arts and job training program for homeless, foster, and low-income youth ages 16-25. Their studio is located just a couple blocks south of Malcolm X, on Alcatraz Avenue. Participants can choose to follow an entrepreneurial track, an arts-focused track, or a community engagement program. The “Safe and Sound” mosaic project is a product of the latter.

Stephon Brewster, a 17-year-old Berkeley High student, is one of the YSA participants who worked with younger BUSD students to make the mosaic tiles. He described the installation of the tiles this fall as an invigorating community endeavor.

“I felt like I was making a change. Everyone was cheering us on,” he said.

Brewster serendipitously stumbled upon YSA when he was walking up Alcatraz about a year ago. “I thought I could learn from other artists and really improve my art and get it out to people in my community,” he said.

YSA artists work on their respective projects in the Alcatraz studio. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But YSA doesn’t rely on young artists to happen upon the studio. The three adult staff members forge partnerships with schools and agencies. Many of the current artists are referrals from the McKinney-Vento counselor at Berkeley High, and others come from Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing, and local shelters. 

“We were founded in response to the enormous employment and employment training challenges that youth dealing with poverty face,” said director Sally Hindman, who started the program in 2007. “For a lot of youth who have experienced trauma, it’s a way of being in this really warm and nurturing community. Once you add art in as an element, it brings things to a much deeper level.”

Vernon Neely, 16, a Berkeley High junior in the program, agreed. “I think it’s a wonderful place where people can show up and express their emotions through art,” he said.

Youth — who, like Neely, can choose to take on formal leadership roles in the organization — are encouraged to participate in decision-making and to pitch ideas. The mosaic project was the brainchild of a YSA participant who was also the sister of the girl hit by the car on Ashby.

YSA worked with the Malcolm X administration and mosaic artist Rachel Rodi, who suggested including handmade tiles in the mix. Over the course of a year and a half, YSA artists learned how to make the tiles out of clay, and led workshops at schools and the Juneteenth festival, teaching younger kids and community members how it works.

YSA participants and younger kids made handmade tiles promoting health and safety. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“During the tile-making, everyone was curious, engaged, and working hands-on,” Rodi said. “It’s using art to empower and build job skills.”

The project was also designed to promote personal health and safety. The elementary and middle school students involved made kitchen magnets announcing personal health goals.

Along with time and labor, the erection of two large mosaics requires funds. The $32,000 needed to create the mosaics was cobbled together from a variety of sources. YSA receives $85,000 annually from the city and $55,000-$60,000 from private foundations, and rakes in around $30,000 from individual donors. The money made from the youths’ art sales (they keep 50% of the proceeds) is not negligible; last year they made $15,000.

In the month since the mosaics were unveiled, YSA has already completed another large-scale community project. The Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 building on Clay Street in Oakland is now covered in a mural.

Other projects are in the works, but the Malcolm X mosaics hold a special place for some of the artists, many of whom live in the neighborhood or are alumni of the school.

“I like how we put something there by an elementary school and now people can notice it,” Neely said.

The artists ended up with a handful of unused tiles. This year, they’ll take a momentary break from community revitalization and use them to liven up their own space.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...