Past security guards and down a dingy stair, visitors to Manhattan’s Intermediate School 117 arrive suddenly at a bank of doors the color of the sky after a spring rain. Through the next door (bright green), 13 middle-school students are perched on ladders, armed with brushes, rollers, and a loud radio, coating the walls with high-gloss latex paint in Shimmering Lime, Blue Wave, Sun-Kissed Yellow, and Apple Green.
IS 117 used to be just another gunmetal-gray institution barely discernible from nearby low-income housing projects. Today, its students are redesigning their environment under the guidance of Publicolor, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 by industrial designer Ruth Lande Shuman. Over the past decade, Publicolor has recruited thousands of at-risk New York City teens to paint 75 school buildings and 87 community sites. Each year, more than 600 kids—90 percent from distressed public-assistance households and streets rife with drugs, gangland graffiti, and gunfire—volunteer for Publicolor’s after-school Paint Club program. Dozens of them continue to meet on weekdays and weekends for tutoring, college prep, career guidance, and, always, painting.
With paint donated by Benjamin Moore and blue masking tape from 3M, Shuman begins each trimester by explaining that color is a communication tool and then teaches the kids to use it. To design the color scheme for each school, she asks students to create their own colors and put the most popular combinations to a school-wide vote in the cafeteria. When the scheme is finalized, Paint Club kids gather after school to share a snack, change into old clothes, and paint for a couple of hours.
Delia Rodriguez, who grew up in Hunt’s Point, where less than 50 percent of teens graduate from high school, joined Paint Club when she was 14. “It kept me busy,” she says. “I wasn’t spending time with people in my neighborhood who were selling drugs or hanging out on the corner all day or having babies.” Today, Rodriguez is 22, an accounting student at a local college and the assistant to Publicolor’s CFO. “We tell her,” Shuman says, smiling, “that it’s a lifelong commitment now.” And one that seems to be contagious: Once Publicolor paints inva neighborhood, Shuman has noticed, residents begin to take pride in their place. “People get the message,” she says. “It means: They’re worth this.”