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Festival Fellow Spotlight: Samuel Rodriguez

Meet Samuel Rodriguez, a 2024 Festival Fellow and the Executive Director of Walls for Justice, a nonprofit using public art to beautify cities and bring awareness to social justice issues. Learn how Rodriguez is transforming public spaces and protesting with a paintbrush, one mural at a time.

  • May 29th 2024

Tell us about your big idea!

Walls for Justice is a nonprofit arts organization that began painting unifying social justice messages on plywood boards that covered up storefront windows during the civil unrest and nationwide protests of 2020. Passersby wanted to help paint. Stores asked for messages of support from the community. Media shared our work. Instead of anger and despair, our words and art became a symbol of hope.

Today, businesses want to continue to support social change, artists want to utilize their talent, and communities want to feel empowered. At Walls for Justice, we want to be a nationwide catalyst bringing all three together. We currently work in public spaces, schools, and museums, and partner with businesses to hire local artists who work with community volunteers.

Since its inception, Walls for Justice has created over 100 public art works and activations, partnered with over 50 businesses and community organizations, and engaged over 2,000 community volunteers to assist with projects.

How did you come to this work? Have you always had an artistic background? 

Since I was young, art has always been present in my life, especially living in a city that is considered the mural capital of the world. In many ways, Philadelphia is the classic American city — it’s rich in history, culture, and diversity. But underneath the surface, Philadelphia experiences the same issues that are all too common across the country: community violence, social inequities, extreme poverty, mental health issues, and climate change concerns. While these issues are systemic (and therefore widespread), BIPOC and other marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by them. To tackle these problems, we must actively listen to and learn from those who are marginalized. Their stories, experiences, and messages shed light on the systemic issues at play and offer insight on how to best achieve social change. Using art, we can give a voice to the voiceless and create positive change that brings people together in solidarity, reshaping perspectives by transforming spaces.

In our experience, when community members pick up the paintbrush, they drop their sword.
Samuel Rodriguez

What makes art such a unifying and powerful agent of change?

Art is a tool that has been historically used to drive positive change and demand social justice. It's a creative practice that gives people a space and platform to express themselves, share messages, spark discussion, call attention to issues, and engage with others.

We hope to help beautify spaces in neighborhoods or areas that have been under-resourced, disinvested in, or forgotten about. We want to make communities feel safer and people feel heard and uplifted.

In our experience, when community members pick up the paintbrush, they drop their sword. We utilize the term “protesting with a paintbrush” because our work highlights important issues that are prevalent in our communities, but in a positive way that inspires collective change. We are hoping to connect with other businesses, leaders, and institutions to identify shared values we all care about and create projects that make a win-win situation for all involved. 

Can you share some of your favorite success stories? What projects are you most excited about?

Our biggest success is our mural program, which uses art to enrich public spaces while also serving as a community connector. We bring together artists, youth and families, businesses, and others to create something meaningful that will have a lasting impact on their community. Through our murals, marginalized communities can express themselves and share their voices, businesses can uplift and empower their communities, and all participants have the opportunity to engage in the creative process of public art.

One project I am currently excited about right now is our collaboration with Mathey College of Princeton University. We are in the process of painting a mural for one of their spaces. Another thing we are most excited about is expanding our programming to have more educational civic and community art-making activities and workforce development that provides training, resources, and connections to underrepresented and under-resourced artists in Philadelphia. Our goal is to help empower artists to pick up their brush and be advocates for change.

The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.  

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