On a Thursday afternoon in early December, students at a public high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan took over the principal’s office, stripping the walls, taping around the doors, and dragging in a paint-spattered boombox.
Then they started painting. Fortunately, Madeline Ciliotta-Young, principal of the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, had already chosen the color, Sapphire Berry. More to the point, the students—who belong to the school’s Paint Club—knew what they were doing, thanks to a New York–based nonprofit called Publicolor.
Ruth Lande Shuman, a Pratt-educated industrial designer, founded the organization in 1996 after completing postgraduate studies on the psychological effects of color in the built environment. She set her sights on improving the prisonlike monotones of buildings in New York’s public school system and conceived of Publicolor as a way to give kids in underfunded public schools throughout the five boroughs the opportunity to change their surroundings using paint and design. The after-school program gained national attention in 2014, when it received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from Michelle Obama.
Student volunteers learn about color theory and the basics of painting from volunteers and Publicolor staff members, nearly all of whom are alumni from the program’s first classes in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then the newly minted youth painters spend a few afternoons a month bringing fresh colors to their school. At the Urban Assembly School, participants have covered swaths of the building’s gray concrete walls in light green and sunshine yellow—lively colors that were chosen by schoolwide vote.
“For many of our kids, it’s the first time that anybody has asked them their opinion about something, let alone listened to what they have to say about it,” Shuman says. “The students feel ownership of their work, and that sense of pride is so powerful.”
Publicolor doesn’t just teach kids how to paint. The donor-funded program also provides homework help, study halls, career guidance, college prep, and sometimes a stipend for the young people to put their new skills to work painting homeless shelters, soup kitchens, clinics, and other community buildings. In 2016, 44 of Publicolor’s 46 high school seniors graduated on time, and 100 percent of them enrolled in college. Shuman says school officials have told her the programs even benefit students who don’t participate: 60 percent of the schools where Publicolor works have seen overall attendance increase since the program took root.
In Ciliotta-Young’s office, Kayla Porter—a Publicolor staffer who started in the program when she was 11—made sure everyone had something to do. Sudan Muhammad, a 12th grader with steady hands and a masking-tape flower tucked behind her ear, turned her attention to the molding, while a handful of other students mixed paint and started on the rest of the wall.
“It’s so satisfying,” says senior Quincy Frances, rolling on the second coat of paint. “For me, I like walking around the school and saying, ‘Yeah, I painted that. I did that.’ ”