Boston Cares, which is an amazing local non-profit (www.bostoncares.org), organized a MLK day of service at the Curley school in Jamaica Plain last Monday. As part of the event I had the opportunity to lead a small mural project on canvas. Mine was a fourth canvas to accompany a tryptich that represents the diversity of language in the Curley school, in Jamaica plain, and in the city of Boston. My fourth canvas shows the languages spoken by the volunteers who came to help with the mural project.
The interactive mural is by far the messiest, the hardest to read, and in my humble opinion, the most fun. After conversations with the Boston Cares event coordinators and some brainstorming with Rahul at MIT, we started with a blank canvas that had rectangles around the edge to form a frame. We filled the central section with a grid of circles. As volunteers came to paint they had the opportunity to fill in a circle next to any languages that they speak. If a language of theirs wasn’t yet on the mural, we added it. We used the border as a space for painters to place their flag, important words in their languages, or images that referenced a language history in their family that may not have been passed along to them.
Within two hours we had run out of spaces for languages. An hour later we had filled up all of the spaces along the right side of the grid as well, and by the time we finished we had squeezed languages into every blank space. We had run out of circles for more than just English, and had started to “double up” the people represented by painting in the space surrounding each circle.
The result is colorful, but not easy to read. In order to let people continue to participate we made some unconventional choices about how a bar chart can be structured. With a quick orientation it makes sense; the number of painted dots following a language, to the left or to the right, plus the number of filled-in squares in that row, equals the number of painters who spoke the language. However hard it is to understand, it was exciting for me when Curley school students who had painted themselves into the mural in the morning came back to show their friends or their parents their dots. They saw themselves represented in the results. And the process sparked some interesting conversations, about what “counts” as speaking a language (How fluent do you have to be to be able to say that you speak it? Does understanding but not speaking your parent’s language “count”? Does a language you’re in the process of learning “count”?), about what happens as languages are passed through the generations, about how many languages are spoken actively in some countries, about why the data in the interactive mural looked so much more diverse than the data from “official” sources shown in the other three murals (my working theory, supported by ESL teachers who came to help paint, is that even if there’s an opportunity to record multiple spoken languages on official forms, people tend to fill in either English or only their primary language for many reasons ranging from worries about immigration status to some of the questions mentioned above about what “counts”) and about who had come to participate in the day of service.
Rahul and I are using the project as an opportunity to test one of our ideas for soliciting ongoing feedback on murals. Rahul set up a phone number and an email address to receive voice recordings and text messages through vojo. If all goes well they’ll be posted along with the murals, asking people who pass by to share stories about language in their neighborhood, or to tell us what would make the murals perfect. We’ll see if we get any responses!