In October of 2019 a group of 50 South Pasadena High School students participated in a seminar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League where they received training on topics surrounding anti-bias. Feeling incredibly inspired, seminar participants Lulu Telesnick Lopez, Maya Turun, Alexa Morales, Noah Kuhm, and Khalil Murdock formed the Anti-Bias Club to promote inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance at SPHS and in the broader community. Those founding members became the officers of the club with Talesnick Lopez serving as President, Morales as Vice President, Kuhn as Secretary, Turun as Treasurer, with Murdoch being integral to the mural project before graduating last June.
The club has spearheaded such projects as partnering with Monterey Hills Elementary School to teach an interactive, anti-bias curriculum to 5th graders that club members created featuring topics like sexism, cyberbullying, identity, and bias. Another project is the creation of an LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education website that includes, as Turun explains, “the vocabulary and the knowledge to understand the concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. We found our health ed program to be pretty hetero-normative and we wanted to open it up to all individuals of all identities.” The website is in its final stages awaiting final approval. Meanwhile, Kuhn has been leading a project group dedicated to teaching about South Pasadena’s history of racism for proposed inclusion with elementary school curriculum of South Pasadena history.
In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and as the anti-racist movement built, the club discussed ways they could respond and the idea of the mural was born. Spearheaded by Talesnic Lopez, Turun, Kuhn, Murdoch, and Cat Flores, the mural aims to serve not only as a celebration of Black people and social justice, but as a tool to educate people about the value of a fully integrated and diverse society and a reminder to continue antiracist work.
Turun felt particularly called to this project because of her arts background. “I’m an artist so I could bring that perspective and combine it with my activism” she explains. Working with Chair of South Pasadena Public Art Commission, Phung Huyhn, with input from Art Commissioner Dr Jaz Sawyer, the group set about choosing an artist by sending the ask out to the community and in the arts community. (SPARC has also been instrumental in helping the Anti-Bias Club with advice and contract language) They received dozens of applications and ended up narrowing it down to three artists who were interviewed.
They chose 35-year-old Los Angeles-based artist Zach Brown, who is also a performer, teacher and activist who believes in the power and purpose of art to grow our capacity for understanding and empathy in the world. “Zach was really great about letting us lead the whole thing. One of the main reasons we really liked him was his idea of the interactive piece of the mural; inviting the community into the mural so you’re leaving a space for the community to be in the mural, take a picture of themselves in the mural,” Tulesnick Lopez says. “It would hopefully spark interest in the mural and we really liked that idea.” Turun stressed Brown’s strengths as an educator saying, “it’s one of the big reasons we really liked him because outside of his artistry profession he is so invested in the betterment of the community especially among young people. It’s probably why he was so good working with us,” she says with a laugh, “because he works with kids on a daily basis.”
From there they brainstormed on the symbolism and the people they wanted represented in the mural and went back and forth with Brown. Turun says they did a lot of research on black creators, artists, and activists that have had a tremendous impact in civil rights and black rights, and explains, “based off of the constraints of how many people you can fit and going over the proportions of the piece, we narrowed it down to a diverse group of people to feature. We’ve also included local activists in the foreground along with symbolism to spark discussion.” Talesnick Lopez adds “and Black people in general to recognize that all black lives matter so we wanted to include and emphasize the intersectionality of that community with elements of LGBTQ+ with the pride flag, or people dancing or cooking, just doing normal things as well.” Along with more familiar faces like John Lewis, Nina Simone, and Ruby Bridges, the mural seeks to educate as well with Turun pointing to, for example, Marsha P. Johnson, “a trans woman who has made great strides in LGBTQ+ rights.” Johnson is honored as a Stonewall pioneer, drag queen, Andy Warhol model, actress and trans activist who co-founded STAR which helps homeless transgender youth.
Viewers will be invited to scan a QR code in the mural which will elucidate each person featured. “We have people like Biddy Mason, who was a local LA philanthropist and prominent landowner who founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles in 1872”continues Talesnick Lopez, “along with Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Patrisse Cullors, Bayard Rustin, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, astronaut Mae C. Jemison, James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, just a multitude of people. There’s a full list on our website with links to their bios as well as information on more people that we weren’t able to include in the mural. We want to emphasize that every person in the mural has been chosen for a reason and chosen for their contributions to society and to the movement of civil rights and to recognize that it is a celebratory mural.”
“The mural is an educational tool,” says Turun, “and the website helps people who may not know about these amazing figures to get to know them better and get to know the movement better.” The two point out the imagery of the sunrays as recognition that South Pasadena was a “sundown town” from early 1940’s through the early 1960’s, which meant people of color were not allowed to stay in the city after sundown. There is significance to the location of the mural at Orange Grove Park because that was where we used to have a public pool known as “The Plunge”. There were multiple incidents of people of color reporting being harassed and a court case grew out of city officials not letting a Black girl enter the pool in 1955. Turun and Talesnick Lopez are keen to bring attention to the racism of our past in order to “identify how that history influences present inequities and learn how to move forward as an anti-racist city.”
And really, can you have a mural in South Pas without our beloved wild parrots? At the right side of the mural, near the interactive space, are free flying parrots freed from a broken cage to represent Maya Angelou and her famous poem “Caged Bird”.
“One of the main things we want people to experience is we want them to have that interest in learning more about the figures included,” says Talesnick Lopez, “and also to feel like it’s a celebration and it’s something they can celebrate and join in the mural.”
The mural project has been a year and a half labor of love and passion for these students. After many meetings, presentations and back and forth, the mural received approval from the Public Art Commission and subsequent approval from City Council in September of 2021. Tulun tells us things are in the final stage, awaiting final City Council approval, however they recently received news of yet another roadblock. City officials have stated that a city-wide art policy needed to be designed and implemented before the Council could take action on the mural. Club members are hoping that the Council will approve the mural while simultaneously working on the art policy. They point to the multiple murals currently around town so they don’t understand the reasoning behind this new delay. They are asking those in the community who support their efforts to write to City Council members and/or give written or verbal comments at the next City Council meeting on Wednesday, March 2.
“This is a project of love and this mural is going to be a part of South Pas history,” says Turun, “and now more than ever I think it’s important to make sure you’re standing on the right side of history.”
You can follow SPHS Anti-Bias Club on Instagram @sphs.abc (check out the linktree) and visit the mural website at https://sites.google.com/view/antibiasclubblmmural/home