Pennsylvania First Lady Frances Wolf was in Jenkintown on Tuesday to observe the National Day of Racial Healing alongside dozens of local lawmakers and community members.
“This day is an opportunity for all of us to pause to reflect and to rededicate ourselves to creating a stronger, more just, and more unified commonwealth,” Wolf said.
The gathering at Leedom Street and Greenwood Avenue served as an outlet for community leaders to share their thoughts on racial progress and the lack thereof in the neighborhood and across the country.
“Days like today are important, because racial trauma runs deep in our commonwealth and in our country. And it is not until we fully face it, and give it space to be expressed, and give it words, and that we truly listen that we can heal our communities,” Wolf said.
The morning began with remarks from Jenkintown Mayor Gabe Lerman, who referenced a conversation he had with his children about why there was a need for this event. He told the crowd that kids are taking the lead on these issues.
Dan Jerman, executive director of the Office of Advocacy and Reform for Gov. Tom Wolf, talked about old wounds and his own experience dealing with discrimination as a person of mixed ethnicity.
“Dr. King’s dream has spoken to my heart since I first heard it. But these past several years, it has sometimes felt like we’re as far from that dream as we have ever been in my lifetime. But at moments like this, here, with people like you, and with people like you who are all over Pennsylvania and the nation, working for peace and reconciliation, I have hope for all of our children to live in a better world that will require all of us to do more work than talk,” Jerman said.
After a brief presentation by the Jenkintown Middle/High School choir, the BelleTones, the focus shifted to the big takeaway from the event: the power of art in healing divides.
A mural and a documentary of the same name, “Symbol of Solidarity,” by local artists were praised for meeting the moment.
“This is what we see in Jenkintown through the ‘Symbol of Solidarity’ — through the mural. It is a piece that is actively transforming a community, and it opens minds by sparking conversations that we can’t always start with with simple dialogue,” Wolf said. “Community art like this is a public representation of a collective feeling. It allows us to possess the world around us and to connect with our neighbors.”
Wolf concluded her remarks by asking those gathered to consider a question: How can I contribute to racial healing in my community?
Esteban Serrano, the filmmaker behind the documentary, said he took that to heart.
“The reason that I’m here today is because of my response to that question that I asked myself,” Serrano said. “Right here in this very town center is where a vigil for the many things that had transpired in what people refer to as the summer of protest, when a family here in Jenkintown decided that they wanted to do something about it. And an amazing artist by the name of Brian Bowens decided that he was going to use his God-given talent to communicate how he was feeling in that moment as a Black man in America.”
Like Bowens, Serrano said, he wanted to create art in a “unifying way.”
“I would just also like to acknowledge and thank the town of Jenkintown for being that shining example that we attempted to capture, that served as just that, an example for how a community could come together and support its neighbors,” Serrano said.
A free virtual work-in-progress screening of the documentary can be viewed at the Symbol of Solidarity website.
Victor Cabral, deputy director of the state Office of Advocacy and Reform, was accompanied 9-year-old daughter Bella.
“I want her to live in a world where she is free to love herself, while also understanding that others have suffered and continue to suffer in pursuit of liberation. And I don’t just want that for her. I want that for all of us,” Cabral said.
After hearing from more than a half-dozen speakers, those in attendance marched for a few blocks to see Brian Bowens’ “Symbol of Solidarity” mural on the back of the Jenkintown Chiropractic Center at 435 Johnson St.
Bowens, who lives in Jenkintown, told WHYY News in an interview that the piece started off as a painting and a visual aid to express what he was feeling.
He said he believes it also speaks to the U.S. motto “e pluribus unum,” which translates to “out of many, one.”
People came to see the original painting at the town center vigil, and Bowens was later commissioned by the owners of the building to create the mural.
Melinda Tollen, who co-owns the building with her husband, Stuart, said they saw the painting at the vigil and immediately thought it would be a great addition to their wall. She eventually got in touch with Bowens for the commission.
“I think it provides hope, and, and I think it provides beauty. And I think it provides people to see that we do care, and everyone is welcome. And we need everyone to be a part of a community,” she said.
Bowens is glad he got the chance to bring his painting to life.
“It was cool because the artwork that I came up with, it’s simple, but at the same time, it speaks volumes. And I was able to just basically just project the original artwork or original design on the wall, and then just freehand it on the building. So, it’s basically just an exact replica of the original painting that I created,” Bowens said.
Getting it painted took several months, and there even was a brief period of controversy, because some people were unsupportive of the message, Bowens said. Nevertheless, the mural was finished in November.
“I would say anybody who has a gift, it can be used to speak volumes and to be able to help with any situation, especially in our community, or especially in our world, where we have so much division, it’s just like, ‘Yo, use your gift,’” Bowens said.
Saturdays just got more interesting.