These high school students are celebrating cultural diversity through public art installations

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an Arab arts and education organization, gives students a platform to share their stories about the immigrant experience.

“Teenagers are a demographic that people don’t commonly listen to, but all of these students have a passion,” says David Heayn-Menendez, the director of public education for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

Launched in 2002 as an Arab-American language and cultural day camp in Philadelphia, the organization has expanded into an intra-cultural dialogue between youth and the community. That discussion involves the community in murals, art installations in community spaces, and open forums where cultural identity is discussed.

“They have the subset of the school, but I want the student to go beyond the classroom and present it to the neighborhood," Heayn-Menendez said.

Al-Bustan planted their seeds at Northeast High School (NEHS) nearly ten years ago to help bridge the gap between different cultures. They also gave students the opportunity to express themselves in the global community. Its 3,300 students represent forty countries and fifty-nine languages.

The school stands tall on the grassy knolls of Cottman Avenue as one of Philadelphia’s largest and oldest schools. It’s more than just an educational institution for grades 9-12, it’s a diverse community representing all corners of the globe, from Pakistan to Korea.

students and public dance in downtown philly The collaborative project by artist Wendy Ewald and NEHS students featured a series of free public events from September 2017 to July 2018 in Philadelphia. (Photo: Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture)

Whether they’re the first generation receiving an education on American soil or had grandparents who left their homeland with hope for a better future, the students' stories overlap in one of the country's most cosmopolitan and diverse cities.

Given the current political climate, it’s no wonder that “a prevalent passion of students is fighting stereotypes and raising cultural awareness. On a national scale and from personal experiences, their lives revolve around racial issues,” Heayn-Menendez says.

These concerns were expressed in 2017 when Al-Bustan collaborated with eighteen NEHS students to launch An Immigrant Alphabet: a series of twenty-six banners each representing a letter from the English alphabet with a word that told their story of immigration.

The first phrase of the project was gathering students together to express what immigration meant to them.

artist helps high school student use camera “I’m really impressed by these guys and the way that they became platforms,” artist Wendy Ewald said. (Photo: Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture)

“American. Order. Stereotype. Faith. Dreamer. They all came out of the discussion,” artist Wendy Ewald said about the process for choosing the words. Next, they used what props and tools they had on hand to tell their story.

Two girls stood back-to back against a black and white backdrop that drew the grisly lines of a "Border." Another student wrapped her body in the American flag as she longingly looked down at the stitched stars. For "Culture," a young teen chose to only show her hands, etched in henna and draped over her sari.

“I’m really impressed by these guys and the way that they became platforms,” Ewald said. She photographed the images for #iAlphabet, the public art installation, first on display at the Municipal Services Building in Center City from September 2017 through July 2018 before moving to Cherry Street Pier in 2019.

Mayor Kenny voiced his support at the kick-off event. The community participated by pinning their origin on a map that was presented alongside the banners. A book that featured their images, American Border, Culture Dreamer, was also published.

public art installation of al-bustan seeds of culture An Immigrant Alphabet is a public art installation produced by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture featuring the work of artist Wendy Ewald in collaboration with eighteen Northeast High School students exploring their immigrant experiences. (Photo: Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture)

The banners decorated the empty space of the high-vaulted ceilings, making their images larger than life and putting their viewpoint out in the open for all to see.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Jenny, an NEHS alumni who had a desire to "try anything that involved expression.” Her art teacher told her about the photography project and she worked on "Youth," "X," and "Stereotype." But no one predicted its longevity or community impact. “There was a lot of community engagement,” Jenny added.

Another outcome was that language, race, and cultural barriers were torn down to bring students together who might not normally sit together in a classroom.

Soon, another NEHS alumni, worked on "Faith."

artist and students outside the public art installation Launched in 2002 as an Arab-American language and cultural day camp in Philadelphia, the organization has expanded into an intra-cultural dialogue between youth and the community. (Photo: Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture)

“When people immigrate, one of the strongest things they carry with them is their faith and religion. A hope for the future can get you through the hardship,” Soon says. Her richly ornamented banner was a collage of trinkets, jewelry, symbols, and fabrics to weave together a story that "no matter where we came from, we all have the universality of being a human being."

In June 2019, the banners were taken down from the pier. After a final "hooray," this generation of NEHS students handed the baton to the next group of students to develop their own "skill sets to do marketing, advertising, and thousand of other careers. These are tools to amplify their existing voice,” Heayn-Menendez said.

Soon and Jenny are in college now, using their experiences as building blocks for their own careers as artists. NEHS's next crop of budding young artists will get to use their voices to start a new discussion: "Your Voice. Your America. Your Future.”

Lindsay Christinee Williams headshot

Lindsay Christinee is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and screenwriter with a passion for sustainability, wellness, and the entertainment industry. Her work has been featured in The Marketplace, Thailand Tatler, and Fashion Weekly.

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