Guest Author: AZITA MASHAYEKHI
According to Earl Nightingale, “Everything begins with an idea;” this story begins with a desire.
In April 2015, after returning from a few weeks in Tehran where I grew up, I was driving home from work and, as usual, passed by the homeless shelter at D and Second Streets NW. Scores of women would line up each afternoon against a plain beige wall, next to the shabby exterior of the Mitch Snyder Art & Education Center for the Homeless to find emergency shelter. The shelter is within walking distance of the US Capitol and the Third Street Tunnel. This was always a grim scene for me, but having been away for a few weeks, this time I felt more indignant, as if seeing things for the first time.
I had been in the US for two years in 1984 and was in college in DC when Mitch Snyder and other Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV) activists occupied the abandoned federal building at 425 Second Street NW. Their protests and a 51-day fast eventually led to the funding and transfer of the property to DC. The shelter, often referred to as CCNV, houses 1,350 beds making it the largest facility of its kind in the country. In addition, other organization such as Unity Health Care, Clean and Sober Streets and DC Central Kitchen provide a variety of services at this location.
As a foreign student, having just left Iran after the revolution of 1979, I was yearning to be inspired and fulfilled in my new life in America. While in college in DC, I came to learn about activists like Mitch Snyder and Ralph Nader. Their public interest work swayed me to study public health and later occupational health, intern at the DC Commission of Public Health and eventually to a career at the Teamsters Union located only a couple of blocks from the shelter. I also took up photography and on occasion captured homelessness in photos.
When in Tehran, I had noticed many street murals and I’ve also seen many beautiful community-based ones in DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few in Alexandria. That day in April, I decided to learn how some of the murals in DC came about and this led me to learn about MuralsDC founded in 2007 to replace illegal graffiti with artistic works and to revitalize sites within DC. MuralsDC is part of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Public Art Program and funded with DC’s Capital Budget.
In a city renowned for its private and public art collections, and with a rich cultural and historical legacy, I think there is more room for street art that reflects each community in beautiful and meaningful ways. As Tara Bahrampour eloquently wrote in her July 6, 2016 Washington Post article “DC’s Wall Tell Stories”, “the murals painted on buildings around the District […] tell stories of the city’s past and present in bold, brilliant paint strokes. From larger-than-life renderings of icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Duke Ellington to montages of ordinary people engaged in community activism, gentrification, immigration and music…each one has a tale to tell.”
Mitch Snyder used fasting as an effective tool to bring attention to homelessness and shocked Americans on the nightly news by exposing the growing problem of homelessness in the Nation’s Capital. Like Snyder’s fasts, art can also be used as a means of drawing attention to the plight of the homeless. I thought that a vibrant mural that paid tribute to Mitch Snyder would remind everyone that “homeless lives matter” and would brighten up the spirit of those who see it.
A few days later, after learning that the wall and the Mitch Snyder Art & Education Center belonged to the DC government and the shelter, I contacted both the DC government and the shelter. With the help of a city official at the Department of General Services (DGS), the DC government agreed to have a mural painted on the D Street wall. Sadly, the Art & Education Center, which bears Mitch Snyder’s name, would not get a mural because the building’s future was uncertain and its exterior requires considerable repairs.
A year later, in May 2016, as I drove by, I saw a young woman painting a mural on the wall of the shelter. I pulled over with huge excitement and learned that Rose Jaffe, a DC painter and muralist, was selected to complete the mural. She spent some time at the shelter meeting residents and staff which influenced her completed work featuring Mitch Snyder, shelter workers and residents. “I wanted to do something that involved the community that this building has, and Mitch Snyder is such an integral activist, so I knew I wanted something with Mitch” explained Jaffe. I believe Mitch Snyder would be pleased.
A couple of weeks later, the mural was completed and I took part in an informal inaugural gathering which included homeless staff, city officials, as well as homeless and mural advocates. Street Sense, the biweekly newspaper that provides a voice for the homeless, published an article about the mural titled “CCNV Mural Makes Faces of Homelessness Visible.”
My desire to do something for the homeless is still there; I plan to visit the other shelters in DC to see if a mural, or some form of public art, would be possible. In the words of one of my favorite activists Eric Francis, “INITIATE creative projects you never thought you’d get to, new relationships and deeper engagement in your community. INSPIRE yourself to keep learning, to remain curious and to share your gifts with others.”
Azita Mashayekhi immigrated to the US in her teens and has lived in DC, Virginia, and Baltimore. She studied public health and occupational health and works at the Teamsters Union in Washington, DC. She is an avid photographer and has exhibited locally, including at the upcoming Cheap Thrills Group exhibition at the Anacostia Arts Center September 16 through October 29.