A few days after the Trayvon Martin verdict, a group of 14- to 18-year-old African-American students sat in the grass beneath a mural they had been working on for weeks, facing a decision.
Should they stick with the original plan for the mural or change the design to include Trayvon Martin? When it was time to vote,every single student voted for the change.
"It was sending a message of our generation," said Michael Williams, 16, of Crafton. "That's Trayvon," Michael said, looking up at the mural. "He passed, but at the same time, he's never forgotten."
Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Florida by George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty last month on the basis of self-defense.
"Shocked" is the word that most students working at the mural project used to describe their reaction to the verdict.
"It just felt like the way it was decided, it was not fair," said Shyaire Howard, 15, of the North Side.
After discussing the outcome of Trayvon's case for several days, the group decided to amend the centerpiece of the mural, which was supposed to be a generic African boy, to the face of Trayvon Martin.
The students are working through the MLK community mural project, which hires students to work from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, for five weeks during the summer. The mural will cover one wall of a house on North Charles Street that belongs to Northside Coalition. Only four weeks have passed since the group of about half a dozen students and a few professional artists started painting. With one week remaining, the mural is almost finished.
The eyes of Trayvon Martin, almost completed, now stare down at the North Side, surrounded by prominent African-American men like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nate Smith and George Washington Carver. Trayvon's gaze, complete with a somber face and lips set in a straight line, sits above the bottom strip of the mural, where each student designed and painted a personal section.
When Andrea Cunningham, 17, of Brighton Heights, who is working on the mural, glances up at Trayvon's face towering above, she is reminded of her brother. Andrea was 15 when her 19-year-old brother was shot and killed. This project, she said, is one small way to remember him.
"It means a lot to me because it means that he's not forgotten," Andrea said. "Nobody's an angel, but nobody deserves to die."
A section on the mural that says, "Civil Rights" in big block letters was painted by Malcolm Walker, 18, of Northview Heights. He paints with an arm that is scarred from a bullet that scraped his arm when he was 15, narrowly missing its target. He has been shot at twice in his life, he said. The first time, he was 13 and playing basketball with a friend in Gary, Ind. The second time, the one that left the scar, was in Pittsburgh.
One section of the mural has a basketball and a football field. It was painted by Malia Hazlip, 16, of Spring Garden, who plays power forward on the basketball team and safety on the football team. Malia was 14 and on his way to his cousin's house for a cookout when his father was shot in the head in front of him.
"The bullet went through his head and came out," Malia said.
His father survived with only a scar, but what Malia remembers from that day is "lots and lots of tears."
The young adults working on the mural hope that it will be a statement that the people behind these stories matter.
"Black people as a whole are important," Andrea said. "Dead or alive we're all important."
The North Side community has been receptive to the project. As a car passes by the mural, the woman driving rolls down her window and says, "Wow that is awesome, keep it up!"
"The kids get that all day," said Kemel Poindexter, 34, of Turtle Creek, who works with the students on the site to facilitate the painting and teach art lessons in the morning.
Mr. Poindexter, who grew up in Wilkinsburg during a time when the area was plagued by gang violence, said such projects are an important way to keep students engaged in their community.
As the young artists stood working on their section of the mural, brushes in hand, sweatpants streaked in paint, Ed Rawson, the chief operations officer of the MLK community mural project, stood watching.
"This mural for these kids is really important," Mr. Rawson said. "It gives them a chance to have a dialogue and talk about their place in the community. It poses a question for them: What kind of a man or woman am I going to be?"
Monica Disare: email@example.com. First Published August 3, 2013 4:00 AM