Queens Schools turn park benches into canvases for social change at Juniper Valley Park

Unisha Chetram is an 8th-grade student at M.S. 137 America’s School of Heroes, in Queens as part of a CEI program teaching students how to practice social activism through art.
Photo by Anthony Medina

Unisha Chetram, an 8th-grade student at M.S. 137 America’s School of Heroes in Queens, spends a lot of time thinking about the many social issues that have taken center stage on a local and global scale.

At the heart of this 14-year-old’s advanced views on social issues is a thorough understanding of homelessness and gun violence. Chetram says her family lived in Texas for a time, and hearing of the Uvalde school shooting in 2022 hit too close to home.

Chetram, like many Queens students whose artwork is on full display at Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village, has turned their education on social issues into activism through the creation of bench murals — addressing the difficult topics of gun violence, climate change, neurodiversity and housing rights.

Four newly installed park benches at Juniper Valley Park as part of the CEI Benchmarks program, teaching students the power of social activism through art. Photo by Anthony Medina

As part of a citywide NYC Parks summer exhibition, the newly crafted benches in Middle Village give the neighborhood park a glimpse at what 1,000 students achieved with the Center for Educational Innovation CEI Benchmarks program this year.

The CEI Benchmarks: Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change program helps students learn how to speak out on major social issues they care about through a student arts residency curriculum.

CEI has partnered with NYC Parks to showcase 30 park benches across the five boroughs. One of the Queens public schools that participated in this year’s program and attended the official unveiling were students from M.S. 137 America’s School of Heroes in Ozone Park.

The students at M.S. 137 created the bench titled “Everyone Deserves Safe Housing.” In a one-on-one conversation with QNS, accompanied by educators, Chetram explained that the artwork was a collective effort and shows how innocent lives are lost due to homelessness and gun violence—often intersecting at times.

“I think New York is a really big place, and being a really big place, it deals with a lot of gun violence,” Chetram shared, elaborating on how the intentions of those who get guns illegally often continue with bad intentions.

Chetram went on to talk about homelessness and how it is presented on the crafted bench as people left floating around a cityscape.

“These people floating represent the people in New York that are homeless, that are wrongly out of place,” Chetram said. “A lot of people have emergencies that they have to deal with and sometimes those emergencies require a lot of money, that may get them on the streets.”

The plaque located next to the bench recognizes the school’s CEI Teaching Artist Pamela Washington, Principal Pamela Trincado and Student Teacher Maria Simpson-Slowley.

Other schools with benches on display include P.S. 124 Osmond A. Church and J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom, in South Ozone Park, and P.S. 277 The Riverview School – High School, in Long Island City.

Don’t Make Scares That Remind You of Your Suffering, Make A Mark That Reminds You of Your Success bench by J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom. Photo by Anthony Medina

The J.H.S. 226’s bench, titled “Don’t Make Scares That Remind You of Your Suffering, Make A Mark That Reminds You of Your Success,” is focused on violence as a whole, especially in schools.

Osmond A. Church P.S. 124 completed their bench “Be The Change, I Am The Change,” which brings attention to the world’s pollution and a message to recycle for a better earth.

Be The Change, I Am The Change bench from Osmond A. Church P.S. 124.

“Neurodiversity: We All Think Differently,” completed by P.S. 277 The Riverview School – High School, encourages others to embrace diversity wholeheartedly by accepting the many ways people think.

Neurodiversity: We All Think Differently bench by P.S. 277 The Riverview School High School. Photo by Anthony Medina

Alexandra Leff, Creator of CEI Benchmarks and CEI Executive Director of Arts Education, emphasizes the significance of giving students the skills to express themselves at a young age.

“We are so proud of our students who have confronted major social issues through their beautiful and powerful bench murals,” Leff said. “Their messages for social change on a wide array of critical issues will inspire hundreds of thousands of people this summer in our citywide parks exhibition.”

The benches are now available for viewing in Queens and across the other participating boroughs.