Street Child World Cup! Football & Art for Change

The players gather on the pitch in front of the completed mural. Photo provided by Street Child World Cup.

The players gather on the pitch in front of the completed mural. Photo courtesy by Street Child World Cup.

IMG_6705The Street Child World Cup is, in my opinion, a pretty genious-y idea that began in South Africa in 2010, coinciding with the World Cup that year. This time around, a greatly expanded event took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, featuring 25 football (soccer) teams, both male and female, from 19 different countries. The teams were made up of teenagers, many of whom had recently experienced homelessness and the street life, others of whom had not lived on the streets but were at risk due to deeply precarious situations in their communities. All had been taken in by local organizations who worked with them to cultivate positivity in their lives and prevent them from falling victim to the very real dangers surrounding them; violence, addiction, abuse, mental health issues and hopelessness…

For 10 days the event exploded with energy as a whirlwind of activities took place. There was, of course, a big football tournament, culminating in the finals at Fluminense Stadium. But there were also music and dance performances, artistic activities, elaborate opening and closing ceremonies, a touristy trip around Rio, visits to a favela to interact and share with local kids and the creation of gigantic murals! You can imagine the cross-cultural potential when you have teens and their staff members from countries as diverse as India, Egypt, Kenya, Indonesia, Mozambique, the US, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, Burundi, Mauritius, Liberia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, South Africa, the UK, Tanzania, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe. The goal of this event (besides giving these kids the absolute time of their lives!) was to use sports and the arts to raise awareness for the plight of millions of street children around the world and call for an end to the abandonment of society’s most vulnerable citizens. IMG_6605

Before the event began, I created a welcome mural in Vidigal, one of Rio’s most famous and artsy hillside favelas, so that when the kids came marching up the steep hill they’d have a surprise waiting for them. When they got to the top they spent time mingling with local kids, getting their first taste of capoeira and sharing various dance and musical traditions with each other. It was truly amazing to watch everyone interacting, not able to understand each other’s languages but really bonding and getting excited while learning new dance steps and songs. We created a mural in which a maternal figure holds an entire favela-style community in her hands with each participant painting a house with images and poems about their own hopes and dreams for the future.

The largest mural, at the main event site called Lonier, was on a giant wall facing a football field. On dozens of hexagons (in reference to the football), the participants each wrote messages, poetry, and painted imagery relating to the themes of the event. Together, the hexagons made up 3 large figures; the first two were of an Indian male player and a Salvadoran female player. It also included, on the left side, an homage to Rodrigo, the captain of Brazil’s boys team who was gunned down on the streets of Fortaleza on his fourteenth birthday, only a month before he would have traveled to Rio for the Street Child World Cup, something he was greatly looking forward to. It was a tragic blow to his teammates and friends, who wrote messages to him on the wall, and a reminder of the extremely violent existence that these kids face, even when they have turned their lives around as Rodrigo had done. During one of Brazil’s games, the boys ran over to the image of Rodrigo on the mural after scoring a goal and bowed down in honor of him. Movingly, the Pakistan team then did the same in solidarity with the Brazilian boys. Then the Argentine boys, who had initially had a rivalry with the Brazilian, did the same when they scored. IMG_6854

For those of us who were there, it was an unforgettable experience full of moving moments. During one match between the female teams from Indonesia and Tanzania, the Indonesian girls celebrated as Tanzania scored goal after goal— it was an uneven game due to Indonesia’s lack of experience– but the girls from both teams would jump on each others’ backs and dance and sing after every goal! Then the Tanzanian goalie allowed an Indonesian shot to go in, and the whole game erupted in joyous celebrations from all the girls and fans, a spontaneous outburst that reflected the spirit of the event. Afterwards the girls became close friends, inventing their own country called “Zimbonesia” with its own flag, and crying their hearts out as they hugged each other goodbye on the final day. Remarkably, this bond was born despite the fact that they couldn’t even understand a word of each other’s languages! IMG_6788

Some may ask of this and other similar events: why use so much money, time, energy and resources for a couple weeks of sports and arts activities when there is so much need among vulnerable populations for life’s essentials: food, shelter, healthcare, etc. While no one is arguing in favor of organizing such events instead of providing food and shelter, it is important to recognize that there are many challenges that cannot be faced with these basic needs alone. Children are on the streets because they have been stripped of their basic human rights to have a life free from abuse and neglect; to have educational opportunities and safety; to be cared for and provided for. Their societies have allowed them to slip through the cracks. It is important to pressure governments to set up programs for these kids and to provide services in marginalized communities to prevent more children from suffering the same fate. Equally important, ordinary people must stop thinking of street youth as simply thieves and addicts, but instead begin to see them as victims of indifference and aggression on the part of the State, the police and mainstream society. A change in consciousness and a change in public policy: this is what Street Child World Cup and similar projects are calling for by way of high-profile, media-savvy campaigns that highlight the children’s humanity and bring attention to the issues they face. It also aims to bring street youth and like-minded organizations together to meet each other, connect and begin to build a global movement to achieve these goals.

Dozens of news stories have been broadcast across the world by global giants such as BBC, Globo, ESPN and China’s CCTV as well as the event’s massive media team, bringing the stories of the participating kids to the masses. Many of the teams returned home to great celebration in their communities as well as on the part of elected officials and local leaders. The boys from Pakistan, who placed third, were received with financial scholarships for their education. The Burundi players, who represent both the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups who fought a bloody civil war, will tour their nation to advocate for ethnic harmony and reconciliation. In Durban, South Africa, policy was changed to prevent police from forcibly displacing homeless youth, and many officers became soccer coaches for street child teams through a program aimed at preventing violence and exposing the police to the kids’ humanity. These and many other examples show what concrete achievements can be made when people come together in common cause.

From the Ashes: the Power of a Second Chance

Bloomington, IL 2013: "From the Ashes" created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

Bloomington, IL 2013: “From the Ashes” created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

“From the Ashes” was a homecoming for me—literally. I left my hometown of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois when I was 18 and have since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC and Brooklyn as well as stints in places like Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Santiago de Cuba, El Salvador, Cape Verde and on and on… I’ve always gone back home regularly to visit my parents, and the idea came up on many occasions to organize one of my art & social action projects there.

The opportunity finally came by way of local partners who came together to help organize and fund the project. I worked with a group of high school students at the Regional Alternative School who had, for a variety of reasons, not been successful at their traditional high schools and now were being given a second chance at getting an education. I’ve always especially enjoyed working with kids who’ve had a rough time in life, the ones who are considered “challenging” but who I often find to be the most interesting and inspiring. This is probably partly due to my own adolescence, when I had a few challenges of my own. While I wouldn’t compare my experience to some of the severe cases that I’ve come across in my work with young people, I remember feeling isolated and misunderstood, and acting out in a variety of ways: vandalism, shoplifting, drugs… and then a relationship I was in when I was only 15 and 16 years old resulted in pregnancy. While my relationship with my son ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, it was quite a shock to my teenage mind to discover that I would be a father—so much responsibility at such a young age!

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

The first week with the students was all in the classroom. We discussed issues important to their lives and their communities and came up with the theme of “Second Chances” for our project. We studied mural art and its impact on humanity from ancient cave paintings to modern street art and graffiti, took turns drawing each other in different poses, learned a variety of artistic skills and concepts, played games, wrote poetry and songs based on our theme, and created individual works of art. All of this led up to the design of our mural, which we painted over the course of the second week.

Using their ideas, I came up with a design that had several principal figures but that had room for each individual to express themselves through their poems, abstract designs, drawings and written messages, all inspired by the importance of second chances in life, of recognizing unrealized potential, and of the possibility of the rebirth. The students were excited about the project, especially as they have no art in their normal curriculum. It was amazing to watch them represent their own experiences and feelings on the wall, putting it out there for the world to see. One bright, energetic 16- year- old girl pointed to a heart she had painted that had been stitched up. “This is my symbol,” she said, and told me that her childhood had been rough and she had experienced a lot of heartache in her family, but that she had made it through and was feeling positive about her future.

We had a great time painting, being interviewed by local media (TV, radio, front page of the local newspaper!) and coming up with a presentation for the inaugural event, which took place on a beautiful autumn Saturday in the parking lot in front of the mural. There was a big turnout, with friends and family members, local officials and even the mayor, who gave the inaugural speech. I spoke as well, as did three of the students. Thanks to all the sponsors who made this experience possible: the Downtown Bloomington Association, the Mirza Arts & Culture Fund, the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, and a big thanks to the students and staff of the Regional Alternative School for all your hard work!!!  –Joel B

Painting a Syrian Refugee Camp: the Za’atari Project

IMG_3552The Syrian Refugee Youth Arts Project in the giant Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan took place in June and July of this year. For this initiative I teamed up with international artists, Syrian refugees and child participants to explore important issues in the camp and the residents’ hopes and dreams for the future of their nation. We painted collaborative murals on tents, washrooms, a hospital and will soon be painting a school. We also created stencils, led art and educational workshops, and organized a day of  kite-making and decorating. The project is a collaboration with the global humanitarian agency ACTED and the arts organization APTArt and features a team that includes myself, Syrian artist Jumana Hokan, South African artist Luc van der Walt and US artist Samantha Robison in collaboration with a big group of Syrian refugees and dozens of children and teens. –Joel B

Arrival at Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp

970718_10151722733148689_2032246966_nI arrived at the airport in Amman, Jordan at around 5:30 this morning and headed to meet up with everyone from the organizations I’ll be working with, APTArt and ACTED. I was surprised to learn that we would be heading to the camp right away! After a quick cup of coffee we were on our way through the desert-y scenery to an area near the border of Syria where a massive refugee camp has sprung up and, in only 9 months, has swollen to 120,000 people! I was impressed to see that the humanitarian agencies, including ACTED who contracted us for this project, have kept this vast tent city very clean and stocked with rations of food, water, housing, and other basic living necessities. Despite this, there is a great deal of chaos here; many times a day, frustrated refugees protest and riot, often throwing stones at aid workers, and we were instructed to evacuate immediately when this happens. Our team includes artists from Syria, Jordan, South Africa and the US who are being organized by the global arts organization AptART.

photo (1)Our goal here is to use public art to channel the children and teenagers’ energy to beautifying their new community, communicate messages of hope to their fellow residents, and reach the outside world to raise awareness of their plight, as the international media will be covering the project. We intend to set up an initiative that will continue long after we, the international artists, have left the camp. This week we focus on meeting with the community to discuss the themes, imagery and locations of the murals. –Joel

City of God/ Cidade de Deus: Rio de Janeiro

IMG_2948It’s been a jam-packed month in Rio de Janeiro, def one of my favorite places in the world. In what has become a regular gig, I worked with the young folks at ASVI, a community organization in the favela City of God (Cidade de Deus) in Rio’s western zone, to create a series of works of public art pieces and learn about important community issues. A great friend of mine, the super community-oriented Anglican priest Nicholas Wheeler, organizes the project and funds it through the Church in London. Nicholas is my favorite kind of religious guy; focused on uplifting the neighborhood and working with everyone to achieve this goal, including people like me who are not members of the Church or even Christianity. There is so much more that unites people when we can agree upon common goals, instead of the destructive tendency to focus on that divides us.

We first worked on a mosaic piece, which was way more work than I expected! But the kids had a lot of fun with it and learned a new set of skills. We also created two murals that used familiar biblical stories to explore current social and community issues, and liven up some of the squares in the City of God. I also got a chance to get out in the city and go to the beach, catch some live samba and other parties, and of course catch up with my friends here in Rio and meet some amazing new people.

The Garden of Eden– Brazil style!

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2013: Joel regularly leads youth mural projects in the City of God (Cidade de Deus) community in collaboration with the youth NGO ASVI, organized by the Paróchia Anglicana Cidade de Deus

A new piece in the Plaza of the Prophets. All the plazas and streets in the City of God have biblical names, so the murals combine these familiar themes with current social issues relevant to the community. The youth contribute to the themes and designs.

A new piece in the Plaza of the Prophets. All the plazas and streets in the City of God have biblical names, so the murals combine these familiar themes with current social issues relevant to the community. The youth contribute to the themes and designs.


The kids working on the mosaic.