Group photo of teens at THEARC in Southeast D.C. during a day of service to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cassidy Jensen

Outside on Jan. 14, a snowstorm forecasted to hit D.C. was replaced by steady rain. Inside, teenagers at The Town Hall Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) created their own storm by imitating the sounds of rain, wind and thunder with their bodies in a crescendo of sound and energy.

This pump-up session was meant to both prepare them for a day of service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and also to reaffirm their value. It was the second anniversary of the #OurLivesMatter campaign, an effort to empower Black youth to better their communities after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Everything that they say about you is a lie,” Teen Programs Director LeVar Jones told the group. “They say that you don’t give back, they say that you don’t love, they say that you don’t serve.”

The campaign started with a town hall for youth to address teens’ anxieties about interactions with police. However, the demand for new events gave birth to a campaign that Jones said has reached over 1000 youth in six cities over the past two years. Topics have expanded beyond police brutality to include violence, youth homelessness, educational advocacy, youth hunger and employment.

To Jaquan, 15, #OurLivesMatter means that the teens are part of one community. “There are a lot of teens trying to help the people who don’t have anything,” he said. “We are fighting for our freedom. We are trying to make our world a better place.”

Eighty-one young people participated in the service day, part of the campaign’s MLK Teen Takeover weekend. The weekend began with a charity basketball game on Friday night, coached by Trey Burke of the Washington Wizards, and ended Sunday with a youth concert.

The basketball game raised $600 for the continuation of the #OurLivesMatter campaign and was attended by 175 people. At the Sunday concert, leaders of community partners presented youth with awards for their work in the organization.

“We thank you for being here to buck the trend, to debunk the myth, to blaze the trail, to be who you are, your beautiful Black selves,” Jones said as the teens prepared for their service projects. “You have the blood of kings and queens in your veins, you can do anything that you say you want to do.”

On Saturday, half of the teens painted murals at THEARC and the other half created collage vision boards with younger children at the Barry Farm Recreation Center. The activities were designed to allow for creativity and goal-setting as well as to create a lasting contribution to the community.

Volunteers from Providing Artists With Inspiration in Non-Traditional Settings (PAINTS) helped the teens create a series of murals to honor Dr. King by embodying progress and growth. As they painted, the young people considered the kind of mark they hoped to leave for future generations that would use the space.

Angel, 16, served as a model for one of the murals, which also included representations of music, flowers, and sports. “We should give back. [MLK] did a lot for us, he wanted a better future for us. This is us giving our time for his birthday,” she said. Angel’s flowing dreads were meant to symbolize movement and growth in the mural.

At Barry Farm, Aiesha, 15, helped a younger girl create a vision board about her dream of becoming a police officer. Together, they cut out words and pictures from magazines. “Do you want to “protect”?” Aiesha asked, offering the cut-out word. Her buddy nodded and added it to the board.

Monae Warren, 13, made her vision board about boxing, saying there are not many women who box. An organization that empowers D.C. girls from single-parent households, Be Polished, had recently taken Warren and other middle school girls to learn about boxing from a female boxer as part of their career development program.

The service day participants came from four community programs: Black Swan Academy, Be Polished, iCAN Technical Theater Internship, and The Boys and Girls Club of Washington D.C., all of which helped plan and fund the weekend. Teens visiting from the Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle, N.Y. also joined the group.

Although many of the young people received community service hours for their work, they all attended voluntarily. “They do it because they love what the organizations gives them, a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging,” Jones said. “These organizations create safe spaces for young people to be themselves.”

TaNiyah Pinkney, 12, believes it is important for Black teens to engage in service in their communities. “I believe it’s important for African-American men, young men and women to prove that they have great things going on about them, they’re respectful and they can make the world a better place and safer for others,” she said.

Building off of that, Londynn Whaley, 14, said, “It’s important to give service, to see that not everybody has what you have, to realize what’s going on in your world.”

An international youth-empowerment organization, In a Perfect World Foundation, provided mural-painting supplies and breakfast for the teens. “It’s so important for young people to know that they can make an impact at this age, that they can make a change, they can make things more beautiful and make things more pleasant in their own communities,” said D.C. Program Manager Shelvee Casey.

Jones hopes to leverage In A Perfect World’s international programs to expand next year’s MLK Teen Takeover weekend. “We set out last year to do a big weekend and we knew this year we had to go beyond it,” Jones said. “I was amazed, humbled and proud.”

At the end of the day, volunteer leaders asked the teens to explain what they had learned from the process of making murals and vision boards as they shared their reflections with the group. On their way out, each person signed their names with markers on a full-wall Martin Luther King, Jr. mural-in-progress, leaving another piece of their legacy etched there.

Girl painting a mural with flowers, a basketball, and a football.

A teen paints a mural at THEARC during MLK weekend service day.|Photo by Cassidy Jensen.