At 9:20 a.m. Tuesday Brashear High School was silent. A hallway leading to the auditorium, adorned with papier-mache sculptures, collages and pastel crayon posters, was empty but for three grey mannequins who wore tutus made from plastic Giant Eagle bags.
But in a matter of minutes, the space swelled with loud, excited chatter — the sound of 400 young people gathered from neighborhoods across the city.
They arrived at the high school in Beechview for the annual MGR Youth Rally for Change, an event hosted by Chicago-based educational nonprofit MGR Youth Empowerment and the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy. The academic and artistic program, organized in part by a branch of MGR, seeks to close the summer achievement gap for children from economically disadvantaged families.
The Rally for Change began as a small gathering in the Hill District eight years ago, when it was conceived as an artistic avenue for students to advocate for an end to violence and injustice in their communities.
“There are a lot of police sirens every day when I wake up,” said a wide-eyed Antwoine Johnson. The 11-year-old Beltzhoover resident wore a paper badge that read “ARTS IN ACTION.”
Under his teacher Sonya Dugal’s guidance, Antwoine had fashioned a construction paper tree on which fellow students could inscribe their wishes for Pittsburgh. He expressed his own wish in an eager chant: “Make the change, don’t join the gang!”
Following tours of the art displays and photo booth in the hall, students filed into the auditorium for the main event: a colorful slate of performances from fellow campers and professional performers alike. Local artists Kai Roberts, 1HOOD and the Lighthouse Project were in attendance, as was Mayor Bill Peduto.
Out of place wearing a suit and tie among students in vibrant costumes, he opened the event to a chorus of cheers.
“Today, this is your city,” he said, standing between large cardboard peace signs. “If you ever really want to see peace, it starts within you. Then it becomes what happens on your street, what happens in your neighborhood, and you build what is called a common unity.”
Many of the performances depicted acts of violence being redressed through song and dance. One choreographed number presented playground politics as rhythmic motion, featuring girls dressed in white tops miming a fight with cartwheels and the splits. Another had two boys beating drumsticks against overturned trash bins.
The morning took a somber turn when Tia Torres, one of the event’s college student hosts and a Rally for Change alumnus, announced into her microphone, “I lost so many friends that I can’t even count to gun violence.” She asked the students, “How many have lost friends to gun violence?”
A smattering of hands shot up. Others followed tepidly.
“Aren’t you tired of it?” Ms. Torres cried. She was answered by an applause, which thundered through the crowd.
Yanan Wang: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1723 or on Twitter @yananw.