Before the mural, there were rumblings about racial and cultural insensitivity: Several parents at the elementary school said they spent more than $1,000 of their own money to buy books by authors of color for the school library. During a “Colonial Day,” students at the elementary school were made to play roles on settler ships, something that made students of color and their parents uncomfortable.
“By the time our second child was in that school, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to put my kid in a Pilgrim dress and take on the persona of white settler colonizer,’” said Victor Quiñonez, who is of Mexican descent and whose daughter was one of the muralists.
Doug Hecklinger, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 295 who came out as queer to his students a few years ago, blamed the school administrators for creating an environment that has failed to nurture cultural understanding. “It was not uniform,” Mr. Hecklinger said. “Some teachers didn’t feel comfortable using a diversity of books without more training.” He recalled a colleague complaining, “Why can’t we read normal children’s books?”
And then came the mural.
Carlos Menchaca, a Democratic council member who represents Sunset Park, Red Hook and Greenwood Heights, allocated a $20,000 grant to Groundswell for the mural, which he had done for more than a dozen other schools in the past.
Groundswell, which has completed more than 200 pieces of public art at 128 schools around the city in its 25-year history, recruited students from the elementary school to brainstorm on the content and design.
The Park Slope mural diverged from artwork at other schools. A number of Groundswell works in the district used slogans like “Resilience” and “You Are Welcome Here,” none of which referred explicitly to current events.
But the mural that would be spread across the cafeteria wall during the summer tapped into a reckoning of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer set off worldwide protests. Those demonstrations included a march in Brooklyn that drew an estimated 15,000 supporters of Black transgender people, who are disproportionately the victims of police violence. Though Ms. Pagano had urged Groundswell to broaden the mural’s message, Sarah Katz, a Groundswell official, told her in an email that the mural was inclusive in its specificity.