Take a group of low-income, at-risk youths from various ethnic backgrounds, all involved with the criminal justice system, many with a history of interracial and gang warfare.
Employ them to work on a massive mural project documenting their various ethnic histories.
Bring together a group of artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and community volunteers to collaborate.
What do you get?
You get the Great Wall of Los Angeles.
I just visited this astounding half-mile long mural showing the history of ethnic people in California from pre-historic times until the 1950s.
It’s said to be the longest mural in the world.
It’s a long train of powerful, moving, disturbing, beautiful images.
Here’s how it came to be: In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Los Angeles artist Judy Baca about the possibility of creating a mural as part of a beautification project along the wall of the Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel that drains the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley.
Baca, a Chicana, took inspiration from the Mexican social mural movement, and conceived of a project that would use the space to “create public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population, but who are not represented in public spaces in any visual way.”
Over 400 young people participated in the making of the mural, which was begun in 1974 and completed over five summers.
The youths selected were employed as assistants and participated in both the planning and execution of the mural. They were paid through the Summer Youth Employment Program.
The participants were supervised by professional artists who worked with them four to eight hours a day.
They received art instruction, attended lectures by historians specializing in ethnic history, and did improvisational theater and team-building exercises.
There were big take-aways. Kids who had always felt themselves invisible felt the importance of their history and gained new perspectives on the impact they could make in their world.
The project engendered responsibility, cooperation, comradery, pride.
The participants learned to work together in a context where the diversity of their cultures was the focus. Thus the Great Wall, in its process of creation as well as its content, is a great monument to interracial harmony.
Work is never done on the Wall, as it is in continuing need of restoration. In addition, Baca hopes be able to continue the project, engaging more young people and depicting history up to the present day.
If you’re in the LA area, you can find The Great Wall of Los Angeles along Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Blvd and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. It runs in roughly chronological order, with the beginning on the Burbank Blvd end.
There really are people out there who are changing the world in wonderful ways. Here’s a video about the history and the making of the mural: