SCHENECTADY -- A long, once-blank wall in the fine arts wing of Schenectady High School is being transformed.
Colorful flags – one rainbow colored, the other blue-and-pink striped – serve as the backdrop for a pair of emerging figures, one with a fist raised over her head.
The figures’ faces Thursday were still rendered only in the soft pencil used for an outline. But the mural’s central characters were slowly emerging in color: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, transgender women of color and key activists in New York City’s gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Without them, there would be no trans community in the LGBT-plus community,” said senior Ja’Deana Cognetta-Whitfield, co-president of Roots Club, a student club organized to highlight black history and culture. One of the club's activities is to create a mural each year at the school.
Johnson and Rivera were present for protests at the Stonewall Inn, after a police raid targeted the gay community. In 1970, the close friends formed STAR, an organization that supported and housed young LGBTQ youths in New York.
Adorning a wall outside the cast and crew entrance of the high school’s Black Box Theater, the mural will be the fourth the student club has painted throughout the school. Former President Barack Obama is depicted on a wall in a central thoroughfare near the school’s main office. That was the first of the group's murals.
The club has also created murals of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani peace activist.
Each mural is meant to represent a minority group within the school, which has one of the most diverse student bodies in the region.
“The [LGBT] community in our school is very big, but I know a lot of them personally feel they are overlooked; they don’t get the recognition,” said Cognetta-Whitfield. “Every mural that we did, it’s representing some minority in our school. It’s a gift trying to show we are here for you. There are people standing for you; they support you.”
Some of the previous murals were voted on by the student body as a whole; Obama, for example, crushed the field. But this year, the club’s students decided whom they wanted to paint – even if those figures would not prevail in a schoolwide vote.
“This is very important. There are a lot of people in the school’s LGBT [community],” said junior Evan Linen, a Roots Club member. “We need our representation, too. There’s not a lot of representation of people who are trans or gay in our school.”
The club started work on the mural in November and hopes to complete it by March, chipping away at it a little each week. The students, who as part of the club’s mission also organize an annual art show in February and have spoken out on various social issues, said the murals send a different, and in many ways more lasting, message than traditional forms of activism.
“We can advocate and speak out about anything we want, but a lot of people aren’t willing to listen,” said Cognetta-Whitfield. “But when you do art, it’s another way to use your voice.”
The club also aims to beautify the school’s long stretches of empty walls with colorful and inspiring art. And some other clubs appear to have joined in the mission, as various murals and wall art have sprung up around the school.
“We are going to probably run out of wall space,” said Roots co-president Janiiya Hart. “We want to create a legacy of people doing the murals, doing the art show, of being involved in school.”