Mural project brought Black voices to a shuttered State Street

Mural project brought Black voices to a shuttered State Street

This story was produced by Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization that focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues in Wisconsin. 

On May 31, the day after violence first broke out on State Street in Madison during demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a transformation began.

Businesses up and down Madison’s defining corridor shuttered. Plywood sheets covered windows — some preemptively and some to cover windows already smashed by looters.

“It looked kind of dead before the murals,” said Amira Caire, a 22-year-old Madisonian and one of over a hundred artists who lent their time, talent and paint to an effort to decorate the barren spaces with colorful messages of pride, perseverance, anger, justice and unity.

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Danielle Mielke, 19 (left), and Amira Caire, 22, worked on a mural at the University Bookstore in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 9, 2020. The mural depicts Tony Robinson, a Black teenager who was shot and killed by a member of the Madison Police Department in 2015. Mielke said the mural is a way to shed light on Robinson’s death and show people how community members felt in its aftermath. “We wish we weren’t painting Tony’s face up here.”

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Artist Duowan Rimson, 35, of Madison works on his mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Rimson said that his goal with the mural was to force white passersby to put themselves in the shoes of the police officer and understand how the police view Black people and Black children. “I’ve been wanting to do a mural since it started,” Rimson said of the recent movement to decorate State Street with public art. “It’s a good way to express not only our talent but our goals and messages. It’s not all about looting and rioting, that’s literally the tip of the surface.” Rimson expressed his frustration with how the mural projects have been carried out in some places. “I see some murals that don’t have anything to do with the cause. That’s exactly what Black people mean about us being overshadowed, about things being taken from us.” Asked about what change he hoped would come from the current movement, Rimson said, “I don’t know what change necessarily would come. But in order to change we need to gain understanding. These murals are helping the people who don’t want to go out and do the research. They’re eye openers . . . We’re not saying let us get away with murder. But we’ve been compliant and done everything, and we still get killed.”

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Activist Lilada Gee (left) and artist Cassandra Marzette pose in front of their mural-in-progress on the Overture Center on State Street in downtown Madison, Wis. on June 11, 2020. Marzette and Gee were commissioned by the city for a number of murals throughout the downtown area.

The mural project began on May 31, when both the mayor and Common Council president contacted Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf to request a “rapid response” art program for the shuttered storefronts. Working with her program’s community cultural partners, Wolf reached out to artists who had worked with the city before. In the following days, as more businesses covered their windows, the Arts Program posted an open call for artists interested in participating in the project.

The mural project was funded through another program, Arts in Public Places Looking Forward, which had been established just a few weeks earlier to support artists who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Madison Arts Program also prioritized artists who had been affected by racial violence and injustice, Wolf said.

Over the ensuing two weeks, more than 100 murals were painted as commissions from the city. Many more works of graffiti and other public art appeared in spaces not used by officially commissioned artists. Nearly all of the pieces focused on support for the Black Lives Matter movement or called for an end to police misconduct.

“I feel that the symbolic language of visual culture can reach people,” Wolf said. “We have to reach people on many different levels to help them understand the devastating effect that racism has had on this country.”

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Mishelle McKnight (second from left) poses with her nephews Ethan (left) and Eton Wesley (right) and her daughter Bada Scates on Lake Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. McKnight’s daughter attends O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison, which reserved a space for students to paint murals in the wake of recent protests against police misconduct and racial injustice. McKnight said she wanted to help students actively participate in the current moment, saying that, “the change that we need to see is going to be for our children.” McKnight said that both her son and the father of her children have been subject to violent policing in the past. Asked what change she would like to see, McKnight said, “treat Blacks the same as you do anybody else. Treat people like human beings.”

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Shiloah Coley, 21, looks at a reference photo of Aiyana Mo’Ney Stanley Jones as she paints a mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Stanley was seven years old when she was shot and killed in a police raid in Detroit, Mich., in 2010. Coley used Stanley and the likenesses of other young Black people killed by police as the inspiration for the figures in her murals. Coley, originally from the suburbs of Chicago, is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied public art and the criminalization of graffiti and other forms of artistic expression. “I’ve always believed in the arts as a super transformative thing,” she said. “I wanted [this mural] to be two Black teenagers with a confrontational gaze. People need to reckon with Black people in this space and taking up space in Madison.”

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Yani Thoronka, a sophomore at Madison East High School, works on a mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. The mural was designed by the Madison-based youth leadership organization Drum Power, of which Thoronka is a member. “Everything that’s happening takes a really big mental and physical toll on you,” Thoronka said. “We want to empower Black people during this time.”

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Richie Morales, 39, paints a mural on the Overture Center on State Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Morales, born in Guatemala, has lived in Madison for two years. “America is a great continent,” Morales said. “But it needs to create a balance of power, of money, of natural resources. I want to unify America.” Morales also spoke about the value of art during social movements. “I think art can change lives. Art is essential. Sadly, sometimes art stays outside of the light because there aren’t a lot of profits in it.”

Wolf said the city officially ended the mural project on June 14. State Street businesses have since begun to unboard, taking down the murals from their windows and doors.

It is not yet clear what will happen to the artwork after it is removed. The decision lies with individual businesses and property owners about when to reopen their storefronts. Wolf said that Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, which works to coordinate and support many downtown businesses, was keeping some of the murals in storage while a plan is formulated. The city is currently collecting input through an online poll and conversations with artists to decide how to move forward. Options being considered include temporary exhibitions, auctions, or donating the works.

“I can’t speak for everyone else’s work, but I do hope they aren’t simply archived and forgotten,” said Simone Lawrence, a local artist whose portraits of Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick have recently been taken down from the Driftless Studio windows near the top of State Street. “I’d like to see an exhibition. Even more ideally, I’d like to see them sold and the proceeds go to Black-owned organizations and/or directly to the artist.”

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Chris Lewis, 23, paints over a mural on Shortstack Eatery in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Lewis said that the city government, which commissioned many of the murals, wanted to replace the existing piece with a more ambitious one. “I’m covering up this shit,” Lewis said. “The city wanted us to. They wanted something bigger, something excellent.” Lewis, who has worked with his mother, local activist Lilada Gee, and a small group of community members to paint a number of murals on State Street, said that the public art projects were exciting to be a part of. “It’s been really eye opening. It feels good to get out here and be among the people, it’s a whole art community. I’m not even really an artist, but it’s been a fun experience.” But Lewis also worried about whether the murals reflected a deeper shift in tone and thinking about issues surrounding Black lives and police brutality. “I think it’s something that’s pretty to look at. They turned something bad into something good. Which kind of pisses me off. I think in part they’re covering it — you’ve put a bandaid over a wound. For some people it’s genuine, but for most, nah. Some businesses feel like they have to let it happen because other people are out here doing it.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Owen Gwynne, 54, of Madison paints a mural recreating a work by DarRen Morris, a Wisconsin man sentenced to life in prison at 17 in 1995. Gwynne was invited to help paint the mural by Phil Salamone and Judy Adrian, Madison natives who Morris has developed relationships with from prison. Salamone and Adrian wanted to include Morris’ art on State Street to broaden the conversation around policing to cover the entire criminal justice system. The mural is a recreation of a work by the artist DarRen Morris, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1995. Adrian, who helped Morris to write his book “In Warm Blood,” introduced Morris to Salamone, a Madison-based artist who organized the mural as a way to broaded the ongoing conversation about policing to the entire criminal justice system. “I wanted to contribute, but I didn’t want it to be about me. DarRen represents something that people arent talking about. There are higher arrest rates, longer sentences, higher recitivism for African Americans,” Salamone said. “Paint is the strongest voice I got.”

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Shahaney Williams (left), 14, and Yasmine Clendening, 12, paint a mural on Lake Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Both Williams and Clendening are students at O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison, and painted on space reserved for them and their classmates by O’Keefe art teacher Kati Walsh. “I thought it was important to show that some people actually care,” Williams said, speaking of the murals as an alternative to participating in the protests for young people. “Some people want to participate but they’re too afraid to walk with [protesters], because of the tear gas and rubber bullets.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Arielle Edmonds (second from right), 31, walked up State Street in Madison, Wis., with her four children to look at the murals on June 9, 2020. “I wanted to show my kids what’s going on so they can be aware of what’s going on in their community.”

Lied to and abused, trafficked persons from Zimbabwe find some healing

Lied to and abused, trafficked persons from Zimbabwe find some healing

Religious sisters attend the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Center: Sr. Theresa Nyadombo of the Handmaids of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, education secretary for the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said a collaborative effort is needed to raise human trafficking awareness. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

This article originally appeared on The Global Sisters Report

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Jane sat on a hard, wooden chair at a church in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, and stared into space for some minutes. Then, she began to croon in worship and, a few minutes later, the gates of her heart burst open, and she began to pour out her heart to her Lord, tears flowing freely like a fountain.

“Father, I forgive my abusers and the people who caused me pain,” prayed the 37-year-old mother of two, who asked that Global Sisters Report not use her real name. “They treated me like an animal, like I didn’t matter, like I was a dog, worse than a dog. God, please heal my pain and heal my broken heart.”

Jane’s journey of pain began in 2016, when she was enticed by a trafficking agent in Harare with promises of a salary of $1,400 per month at a hotel in Kuwait, more than 3,000 miles away. Life had become unbearable in Zimbabwe after her husband lost his job as a casual laborer in a local milk factory and they were evicted from their house for nonpayment of rent.

“Life was very difficult and we barely had something to eat, and if we ate, it was one meal per day,” she said.

It was at this difficult time that she met her trafficker, who was well acquainted with her mother. Everything was planned quickly, and within one week, all her travel documents were ready, including her passport. She was given a new Islamic name: Amina Ishmael.

Religious sisters display cloth promoting work against human trafficking at the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. The conference was organized by the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching and brought together various activists in the area of human trafficking. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

Upon reaching Kuwait, she was picked up from the airport by a man who would be her boss. It was at his house that Jane realized she had been lied to and trafficked. Her host took away her travel documents and forcefully performed a medical procedure to check her overall health.

“I was raped every day, and I was helpless to do anything about it,” she said, weeping throughout the interview with GSR but insisting she wanted to tell her story. “I was forced to work day and night, beaten, restricted to go anywhere, threatened of arrest and deportation and unlawful withholding of my passport. I wasn’t even paid for the five months I worked at the home.”

When things became intolerable, she fled the home and took refuge in the Zimbabwe consulate. Jane was deported after a week, and upon arrival back in Zimbabwe, she was introduced to the religious sisters who run the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST), an association of justice and peace practitioners throughout Africa, and who chaired the Counseling Services Unit, a group of doctors and counselors who assist the victims of human trafficking in Zimbabwe.

“As AFCAST, we deal with social problems that affect the people,” said Sr. Janice McLaughlin of the Maryknoll Sisters, who is one of the forum’s founders. “We focus our attention mainly on human trafficking and abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We always do our research and then we try to reach out to those affected or those we feel need help. All this is done by following Catholic social teaching and mission.”

Maryknoll Sr. Janice McLaughlin, one of the founders of the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching, leads dozens of sisters in denouncing trafficking during the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

‘There are no jobs here’

Jane is among the 40.3 million people who have been trafficked globally, including 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage, according to 2016 estimates by the International Labor Organization, the most recent available data.

Human trafficking in Africa is an urgent crisis, and women and children are especially at risk. People can be trafficked within their own countries, to neighboring countries and to other continents for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, domestic slavery and various forms of forced labor, according to the latest report by the United Nations.

Zimbabwe does not meet the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so, according to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department. The report also notes that the southern African nation has been mapped as a source, destination and transit point for trafficking. In most of these cases, victims are vulnerable children and young adults.

In 2014, the Zimbabwe Parliament passed the Trafficking in Persons Act to identify those who have been trafficked, mitigate the illicit practice and prosecute trafficking offenders. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that the government launched the Trafficking in Persons National Plan of Action to enforce the law.

Since then, Zimbabwe’s government has made some headway in its efforts to end human trafficking. It investigated 72 potential cases of trafficking and prosecuted 42 cases in 2016, compared to none in the previous year. The government reported prosecuting 14 trafficking cases in 2017.

However, women and girls from Zimbabwean towns bordering South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia are still trafficked and subjected to forced labor and prostitution. In rural areas, men, women and children are also trafficked internally to farms for agricultural labor and to cities for forced domestic labor and commercial sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. State Department.

Along Robert Mugabe Road in Harare earlier this year, hundreds of young female travelers stood in queue, holding luggage and waiting for their turn to enter into a bus. The driver of the Citiliner bus, a South African coach company offering services from Harare to Johannesburg, told GSR that many of them were heading to neighboring South Africa to look for greener pastures.

One of them, a young blond woman in a navy dress, told GSR she felt there was no future for her in her home of Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe, and she was seeking opportunities in South Africa to help educate her siblings. She said her friend living in the United States had put her into contact with a woman in Johannesburg who promised to use her connections to find her a well-paying job as a maid.

She blamed poverty and lack of jobs in the country as a reason of migration. The World Bank estimates that extreme poverty in Zimbabwe has risen over the past few years, from 33.4% of the population in 2017 to 40% in 2019. The bank predicts levels will continue to rise in 2020, to between 6.6 million and 7.6 million people. That is about half of the people in this country, who are living on less than $1.90 per day.

“I have no choice but to go and try my luck,” the woman said on condition of anonymity, noting that she doesn’t even have regular migration documents. “I’m told that one needs to have at least $30 to bribe border officials, then they will let you in. There are no jobs here, so I have to try elsewhere to earn a living and help my family.”

High school students attend the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 at Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Public education and awareness campaigns were launched to help especially children, since they are the most vulnerable. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

How the sisters and AFCAST help

On the streets of Harare, people jostle for space to get a glimpse of some notice boards advertising jobs and vacancies in the Middle East, North Africa and in Italy, Spain and other European countries. The vacancies on the glass-sealed notice boards are for recruitment agents looking for saleswomen, housekeepers, hotel attendants, drivers, waitresses and chefs.

Such practices that lead to trafficking have prompted religious sisters in the country and elsewhere to stand up against it. They have been organizing workshops every month in schools and churches to create awareness and assist women and girls affected by trafficking.

McLaughlin said the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching assists women and girls affected by human trafficking with counseling, reuniting them with their families and even helping them start self-help projects.

“I was really moved by the plight of young women and girls trafficked to Kuwait and other Gulf states when I met some of them through the migration office,” she said. “They are abused in foreign countries after being promised lucrative job offers. But it has been really rewarding to see some of them heal from trauma.”

While addressing a regional conference on human trafficking March 18 at the Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare, McLaughlin denounced human trafficking as dehumanizing.

“Human trafficking is destroying the lives of many people, especially young people and young women. Therefore, there is need for a collective effort to fight the vice,” she said.

The conference, which was organized by the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching in partnership with the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, brought together various organizations involved in fighting human trafficking: the governments of Zimbabwe and the United States; survivors of trafficking; faith leaders, including Muslims; and members of civil society.

Sr. Mercy Shumbamhini of the Mary Ward Congregation of Jesus in Zimbabwe holds a Talitha Kum banner during the Regional Conference on Human Trafficking, March 18 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Talitha Kum is a Rome-based organization of Catholic women religious established by the International Union of Superiors General in 2009 to end human trafficking. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

“It is the responsibility of each one of us to fight human trafficking,” said Maria Phiri, a detective representing the Zimbabwe Republic Police. “I would like therefore to encourage everyone to collaborate in this fight by detecting any suspicious activities and also report cases of human trafficking to the authorities.”

Human trafficking has disturbing and long-lasting effects on mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and shame.

Sr. Elizabeth Boroma, a psychologist, has been counseling women and girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labor. Boroma told GSR she has helped hundreds of women to come to terms with their pasts and to face their futures with confidence and dignity.

“Most of them are always hesitant at first to talk about their experiences, but with time, they open up and release it,” said Boroma of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. “Some usually cry throughout the entire counseling session, and I let them do it because it’s their way of healing.”

Sarah is one the beneficiaries of Boroma’s counseling service. She recounts heartbreaking tales of desperation, rape, hunger, life on the streets and the suffering she endured in the hope of a better life four years ago in Saudi Arabia, where she thought opportunities were better.

“I wanted take away my life because of the bad experience I went through while in Saudi Arabia,” said the 28-year-old mother of one, who asked GSR not to use her real name. “I went through therapy with the help of the nun, and it helped me move on quickly. I’m now happily married and doing a grocery delivery business.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has changed the nature of the sisters’ anti-trafficking work. Victims of human trafficking say they are not getting the personalized, face-to-face counseling and interaction they previously enjoyed with the sisters. They are also dealing with the loss of their livelihoods.

The sisters have adopted new ways of providing the needed follow-up counseling by communicating with the young women via WhatsApp, email, texting and phone calls.

Jane is still suffering from the sexual assault she went through while in Kuwait and hopes to attend several months of therapy to help her heal and move on.

“I want to move on, but it’s hard to forget what the man did to me,” she said. “He treated me like an animal, but I leave everything to God.”

GSR video by Doreen Ajiambo (YouTube/NCRonline)

[Doreen Ajiambo is the Africa/Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow her on Twitter: @DoreenAjiambo.]