By David Gonzalez
August 7, 2008
A mural that is slowly going up on the industrial edge of Sunset Park
is shaping up to be one huge Do Not Disturb sign directed at military
recruiters. Its creators? A group of young women barely out of high
school who are still smarting from what they saw as repeated and
unwanted come-ons from recruiters who would stop them on the street,
in school or call them at home.
"If you go to some Manhattan schools or places where the families
have a higher income, you don't see the recruiters there," said Ebony
Thurman, 18, who was once approached by recruiters at the Atlantic
Avenue subway station. "But if you're in Brooklyn or in lower income
neighborhoods, that's where you really find them trying to recruit
people. They tell you that you'll get job skills or college money.
And if you're a girl they'll flirt with you and say there a lot of
cute guys you could meet if you enlist."
She and her friends have been clambering up a scaffolding set up on
the side of a building on 23 Street and Third Avenue, where it hugs
the Gowanus Expressway, since last week. But many of them have been
together for a few summers already, painting murals as part of Voices
Her'd, a group for young women, that meets under the auspices of
Groundswell Community Mural Project, which has painted many murals in Brooklyn.
Amy Sananman, Groundswell's director, works with them each year to
select a theme, research it and then paint it. They had started
thinking about this year's theme in the winter, tossing about ideas a
Given what was happening in the world, the idea of women, the
military and recruiting soon became their choice. What was unexpected
was a few of the young women had been thinking of enlisting themselves.
"I was thinking of joining because with an 80 average, I didn't think
I would get a scholarship to go to college," said Elizabeth Yanes,
17, who just graduated from John Dewey High School. "The recruiters
had a table at my high school. Every time we had a college day, they
As they have done with previous murals, they did research and invited
speakers, including female veterans, to talk to them. They visited
shows at P.S. 1 in Queens that examined themes of power and violence.
They also delved into the uses of propaganda in previous conflicts.
Many of them learned for the first time that the No Child Left Behind
Act allowed military recruiters to have access to high school
students' contact information (which explained those calls to their
homes). They also learned families could opt out from receiving those
calls, information they plan on including on stickers they will print
up as part of the project.
Part of what they want to point out is the connection in some
neighborhoods between recruiting and career choices.
"They say there's not a draft," said Katie Yamasaki, an art teacher
who is directing the project. "But when they say they can't afford to
fund college because 40 percent of our tax dollars go to war, a lot
of youths feel stuck."
The walls of their basement studio, where they meet at a long table,
are covered with their own sketches and data for the mural, which
will show women clutching pencils, brushes and diplomas declaring "We
Are Not Government Issued". Smaller details include women in red
gently easing parachuting soldiers back onto their feet. At street
level, there will be facts and figures about the war.
Ms. Yamasaki said you can view the design in two different ways.
While the bottom part can be filled with details for people who can
walk by and stop, the top part has to be quickly and easily
understood for drivers on the Expressway.
"It has to be something bold," she said. "They might be stuck in
traffic, but more likely they'll be moving by at 40 miles an hour."
The mural will be finished by mid-August. But it has already had an
impact on some of its creators - especially those who flirted with
enlisting - after they spoke with female veterans.
"What is shocking to me is how little time it took to get the girls
to change their minds," Ms. Sananman said. "That blew me away. Once
they had the information, it took them 45 minutes to decide."