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Denver youths share messages of hope on city billboards

Some unusual advertisements are flying high on billboards around Denver this month, and upon a closer look, they’re selling more than just the typical product — they’re selling hope. Messages of unity and courage stand tall on Denver streets. And they share the voices of local youths.

“It really started back when students walked out of East High School to participate in the Ferguson protest,” said Rowena Alegria, senior adviser for community communications for the city and county of Denver.

She’s referring to a Wednesday morning in December 2014 when hundreds of East High students left class and marched to Denver’s Civic Center Park and down the 16th Street Mall in support of residents in Ferguson, Mo., protesting a grand jury’s decision in the highly-publicized Michael Brown case.

The event sparked a conversation between Mayor Michael Hancock and the city’s youths, Alegria said.

“In 2014, when students protested the injustice especially young people of color face in this country, they inspired all of us to ask, ‘What can I do to foster change?’” Hancock said in a recent statement.

So, last fall, city officials asked youths with local art program Arts Street to envision the world they wanted to see and bring it to life on billboards across the city as part of Denver’s Healing As One campaign.

About 20 Arts Street students got to work. A committee made up of representatives from the city’s Office of Community Affairs, Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships, Sander Marketing and Arts Street  provided the young artists with feedback and ultimately selected five designs.

Messages splashed on the giant signboards include “See Me I am Denver,” “Education Not Deportation” and “Better Together.”

“The messages on the billboards are what the students want to say to the community,” Alegria said. “It’s their voice that we are trying to allow residents to hear.”

The first billboard, unveiled Jan. 10, is at the corner of 21st and California streets. 

One winning submission was that of 17-year-old Albany Reynolds. Reynolds’ work uses a tightly-framed photograph of a blonde teenager looking directly at the viewer. The word “HOPE” is projected repeatedly across her face and fills every corner of the white background.

“My vision was to encompass the ideals that the city told us about with their Healing as One campaign — these were love, hope, inclusivity and peace. My idea was to have those ideals literally projected onto a face of a youth,” Reynolds said of her artwork. “I wanted (the words) to be a part of her because to me, (youths) represent Denver’s hope for the future.”

Reynolds’ billboard, titled “Denver Hope,” stands near 4350 W. Colfax Ave. OutFront Media donated the advertising space for all six billboards, which will remain on display until Feb. 25.

“(This) brings a great sense of pride and self-worth to the youths who were chosen, and that’s something that will stay with them forever,” said Amy Banker, program manager for Art Streets’ parent program, the Youth Employment Academy. “It makes them a part of Denver and contributing to the community.”

Healing as One not only provided the students a platform to speak out, but showed them a possible career field in art, Banker said.

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