Restorative Healing at Youth Visions Reflection Park

October 1, 2016, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Nate Masternak's Rescue Youth mural, long part of the tapestry of Woodrow Wilson Park, depicts the park as a sanctuary for local youth and is the site for Youth Visions Reflection Park.On a bright fall morning in October 2005, members of “America’s Nazi Party” gathered on the lawn of Woodward High School in Toledo, Ohio. They began to march through the predominantly black, mid-Western neighborhood, subjecting residents to a barrage of racial slurs and insults. When residents learned of the demonstration, dozens gathered in protest. The white supremacists managed to travel less than half a mile, to nearby Woodrow Wilson Park, before interactions between the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators began to escalate and police demanded an end to the march. 

When the dust settled, more than 100 people were arrested and 12 police officers were injured. Particularly impacted by the march and its aftermath were neighborhood youth. Dr. Lorna Gonsalves, a long-time educator, counselor, organizer and founder of Creative Peaceful Resistance (CPR), was one of the community members who worked with some of the youth who were arrested as part of a pilot restorative justice program. “Subsequently, I worked with many different groups of neighborhood youth who were upset by the neo-Nazi intrusion,” Gonsalves explains. “Using art as a conduit, youth spoke about their feelings and visions for change.”

Creative Peaceful Resistance

CPR is a youth-centered grassroots organizing approach conceived in 1999 by Dr. Gonsalves. She used art as a tool for students to reflect on their experience of racial injustice in an Ethnic Studies class at Bowling Green State University. The approach provided students with an alternative channel for engaging in difficult conversations.  

CPR has been used to allow marginalized youth the space to perform a critical examination of social injustices within their communities; express their frustrations, hopes and lived realities through art; and engage civic leaders in productive discussion through the public display and discussion of their art. Gonsalves used this approach with several groups of North Toledo youth. Channeling their visions of change into art, participants informed a three-part mural titled, “Rising Above Bigotry,” painted by local artist, Yusuf Lateef. The artwork now hangs on a street near Woodward High School and, since then, many more murals have been created.

Expanding the Mission

Following the unveiling of their mural, the youth who worked with Gonsalves on the north Toledo mural endeavored to create an entire “reflections park.” “[They wanted to convert] a public park into a youth-centered outdoor gallery and recreational area,” Gonsalves says. “This was a way of restoring and reclaiming their neighborhood and creating a safe space for gathering and organizing.

“Seniors recalled Wilson Park not being a welcoming space for people of color as the neighborhood was integrating decades ago. And so, the park holds a history of racism. Community youth voiced the desire to replace a history of hate with a future of hope in the park.”

Woodrow Wilson Park already included one mural by artist Nate Masternak, titled “Rescue Youth,” that envisions the park as a sanctuary for local youth. “I have been struck, though not surprised, by the energy and creativity of young people in the community throughout the process of creating Youth Visions Reflection Park,” Gonsalves adds. 

Making Youth Visions Reflection Park

Creation of the murals in Youth Visions Reflection Park began in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2013 that then-Commissioner of Parks, Denny Garvin, began working in earnest with youth on the park site. In 2014, in collaboration with additional youth from the U.S. Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program, work on the park began.    

Gonsalves describes the present state of the park thusly: “There are six original free-standing murals already installed in the park, including a replica of "Rising Above Bigotry." Local artists are preparing to depict the CPR trajectory on the outer wall of the pool building in the park. In addition, eight more murals have been planned for the park. A walking path has been marked and will soon be paved. Once the path is completed, reflection benches built by youth will be installed. Finally, a memorial rock honoring neighborhood youth lost to violence, addiction and suicide will be placed under a tree and surrounded by benches.”

Community leaders, including Mayor Paula Hicks Hudson and Police Chief George Kral, strongly support the idea and implementation of the reflection park. The project also enjoys robust support from Commissioner of Parks, Lisa Ward, who said, “Our parks must be spaces in which youth can feel safe and welcomed. This youth-centered park demonstrates that we are listening — that we value them.” Councilwoman Yvonne Harper, whose district contains Wilson Park, has appointed a board of elders to work with youth and oversee the park. Manager of Parks, Jody Prude, has been instrumental in working with the city to implement the youths’ suggestions, including enhancing the park shelter and finalizing plans for the asphalt walking path, which will wind through the mural gallery. In her view, “Reflection parks are exactly what neighborhood youth need, and they are a win for everyone involved.” Juvenile Court Judge Denise Cubbon, would like to see some of the neighborhood youth, who are on probation, work on the reflection park. This, she feels, will go a long way in reintegrating them into the community.

Once the park is completed, youth organizers would like to use it as a model and invite young people from other communities to create their own Youth Visions Reflection Parks.

“Revitalizing a public space is transformational — not just for the space itself, but for the people involved in the work,” Gonsalves says. “The process of planning and building Youth Visions Reflection Park has helped youth to recognize their agency to effect change and transform their community.” 

Lorna Gonsalves contributed to this article. 

Samantha Bartram is the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.