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On the fence: Children's messages of hope to adorn Reconciliation Center Fence
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On the fence: Children's messages of hope to adorn Reconciliation Center Fence

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For Vanessa Adams-Harris, putting ideas about hope into the hands of children is the perfect thing to do.

“When I am talking with younger children,” said Adams-Harris, who is the director of Outreach and Alliances at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, “one thing I try to get across is how much they really embody that word, ‘hope.’ They are our hope for the future, and a good way of ensuring that hope is for all of us to work together.”

On Thursday, July 1, works of art by Tulsa youngsters, from kindergarten age through the seventh grade, will begin adorning the fence at the center, which runs along Elgin Street. The works will remain on display through July 16.

What is being called The HOPE Fence project is a collaboration between the John Hope Franklin Center and Gaining Ground, a Tulsa nonprofit that works to promote literacy by giving youngsters greater access to books and encouraging reading throughout the summer months.

Something similar took place in June 2020, in advance of the city’s Juneteenth celebration. The John Hope Franklin Center worked with 16 other nonprofit organizations to encourage the public to affix works of art that address the center’s mission of social justice and reconciliation to the Elgin Street fence.

“It was such a great idea, and was such a beautiful thing to see, that we wanted to do what we could help it continue,” said Chad Oliverson, marketing director for Arts Alliance Tulsa, the city’s united arts fund. “Vanessa agreed, but said that she would want it to have more focus.”

“We really had only about four days to put everything together last year, so while we were proud of the results, there was a kind of slapped-together quality about it,” Adams-Harris said.

Meanwhile, Gaining Ground was beginning its summer programs as four Tulsa area schools — John Hope Franklin Elementary, Celia Clinton Elementary, Monroe Demonstration Academy and Unity Learning Academy — used the Tulsa Dream Center as its campus.

“We’re doing a project-based learning camp that addresses how art — even the art of young people — can have an impact on the community,” said Lisa Shotts, Gaining Ground executive director. “I had got in touch with Chad to talk about the Greenwood area, and what it could mean for the students to see and experience that.

“It wasn’t until we were getting ready to leave that I asked him, ‘Do you know of a place where we might be able to hang the art the kids do?’” she said. “And Chad said, ‘As a matter of fact, I think I do.’”

Tulsa’s professional soccer team, FC Tulsa, is also a community partner in the project and will provide tickets to its July 10 game to teachers, volunteers and others involved in making The HOPE Fence happen.

For Adams-Harris, the fact that this project brings together diverse organizations is in itself a message of hope.

“Community is about partnership,” she said. “If we can find ways to work together for the benefit of all, and if we show children how well we can work together to accomplish things, that’s the best message we could pass on.”

The 160 or so students taking part in the program have been working on what they plan to display on The HOPE Fence for about two weeks.

“I really like the fact that every student gets to express his or her individual message about hope,” Shotts said. “Some of the things I’ve seen them working on can be as simple as random colors to self-portraits and word-art pieces.”

Last Thursday morning, Classroom No. 8 in the Tulsa Dream Center was a room full of hope.

It was the final day to create images that would be part of The HOPE Fence, and the students were hard at work with brushes and daubs of brightly colored tempera paints.

Some worked in intent silence, like the girl using the patterns of different countries’ flags to craft a kind of mosaic of a world living together. Others chattered away as they sketched out rainbows and sunbeams, or decorated a blank page with artful renditions of the words “Love” and “Hope.”

Even big mistakes can become works of art. Tyla Webb, one of the teaching assistants at the Dream Center, showed a piece of paper she had used to clean up the floor after she had accidentally dropped a palette loaded with paint.

Once it dried, it looked like an abstracted bouquet of flowers, and Nicole Powell, one of the instructors with Gaining Ground, encouraged her to add it to the images to be displayed.

“You really think so?” Webb asked, comparing the image to one she had obviously worked on for some time, to get it just right.

“Of course,” Powell said. “It’s something beautiful made out of something messy. That’s kind of what hope is.”

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