Watch: Students Empowered As They See Themselves and Their Lives Turned Into Art

Art has the power to transform, and just watching the faces of these six students, almost all moved to tears, as they see their portraits unveiled leaves no doubt.

“It makes me feel really empowered and confident,” said Anais Hernandez, 16, of Los Angeles. “Like — it’s me.”

That was not always the case for Hernandez, who was bullied in middle school, or the other students chosen to have their portraits done by well-known pop artist Jason Mecier. Mecier’s work often captures celebrities and is created using everyday items, frequently taken from his subjects’ lives.

Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that places mentors and social service coordinators in schools to help struggling students succeed, wanted the young people they work with to feel and see that beauty in their own likenesses and the ordinary stuff that captures their essence.

All the student subjects have faced serious adversity and loss, from the death of siblings to seeing their families uprooted and their possessions destroyed in hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. Many of them are carrying adult-size burdens, and having a supportive mentor come into their lives through the Community in Schools program, they said, made a critical difference in their ability to handle them and school.

The portraits have been traveling around the country and will be on display May 1 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., during a Communities in School forum on restorative justice and school discipline.

To see an interactive display on how the portraits came together, read student Q&As and learn more about the mosaic project, go to What We Are Made Of. Watch as the students see their portraits for the first time and tell their stories:

Nasje Adams, Chicago, Illinois

“My self-esteem was horrible. I felt like I wasn’t pretty enough for anyone to be my friend, for anyone to like me. A caring adult put me in a group called My Black Is Beautiful and she helped me build up my self-esteem, my confidence, helped me love myself and helped me put out a message to younger and older females to say that ‘You are beautiful just the way you are.’”

David Brambila, Federal Way, Washington state

“My hardworking experience comes from my father. After he got sick, he lost his job, so we lost the house, the cars … I saw how much my parents were struggling. We needed another way, another source of income, so I had to get a job really young, really early. So after sixth grade ended, in the summer is when I got a job painting houses. … My mentor, Brett, he is pretty much a huge inspiration to me. … After he came into the picture, he actually really got me into school and wanting more of it, and that’s pretty much the reason I wanted to get a better education. That way I can, further on, get a career and help out my parents and help out my family even more. My major is going to be architectural design.”

 Icetria Greene, Houston, Texas

“I was out of school for like two months [after Hurricane Harvey]. So when I came back, I just had to do a lot of catching up. I was more so focused on where we are going to live, and what is my mom going to do, how are we going to progress from this or move on. … She [my CIS mentor] really helped me just emotionally, providing school clothes. I needed school shirts, uniform tops, school supplies, anything I needed for class. She was just there. I feel like sometimes, I am always the rock for other people, but I really have nobody to just, like, talk to, and she shed light.”

Anais Hernandez, Los Angeles, California

“So when I went into high school, I told myself that I can’t let this keep happening. If people see me that I don’t feel confident, I’m going to be a weak target for them and they are going to keep bullying me. I took that summer to really find myself. … If I just need someone to talk to, I can always count on her [my CIS mentor]. [I] have created a bond, a really strong bond with her. I hope when people see this portrait, they see what I’m made of. I just want them to know that I have become strong and I love myself for who I am.”

Joseph Manzanarez, Charleston, South Carolina

“Between lunches, I would just talk about my — things I was struggling to go through, and just questions that I needed, not a definite answer for, but someone’s input, and I felt like wasn’t alone or I felt like I wasn’t carrying everything by myself. I’m really grateful for that. … Currently, I live on my own in an apartment. I am a senior in high school, but I am a senior in high school that was able to invite my mother and my two younger brothers over for Christmas and feed them and let them open gifts, and really, that was one of the greatest memories that I will always cherish.”

My’Yelle Warner, Atlanta, Georgia

“A lot of this stuff reminds me of my brother. I lost my brother July 7, 2017. Me and my brother was literally like glue. Things that I used to tell him, like, I would never tell, like, anyone. He was my outlet. When my brother first passed away, I just wanted to be left alone, like I didn’t want to interact with anybody. I just really wanted to lock myself in my room. … We actually sat down for a couple hours, and she [my CIS mentor] just let me talk about it, and I was really reluctant at first because it was hard. But after a while, I felt I was getting better because I’m able to — I’m not able to talk about it without crying — but I’m able to at least talk about it now. … After being with her for so long and talking to her and getting out my anger and just being able to express myself freely, I enjoy the idea of going to college. She changed my whole attitude.”

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