Brenda Wakai-Torres (l) and Ivan Valenzuela (r) posed in front of their "Today Is Tomorrow" mural//photo by Morgan Elise Johnson

Whenever Ivan Valenzuela turned on his television, he felt overwhelmed by the relentless news headlines pointing to the number of people shot and killed in Chicago the night before. He disliked the media’s distant approach to covering violence, he says, and thought the city deserved a more helpful message.

“I wanted to see ‘0 shots, 0 killed today in Chicago,” says Valenzuela, an 18-year-old Avondale resident. “That’s a headline I would stop and look at.”

So Valenzuela, a rising senior at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School at the time, shared his concept with his Art Appreciation teacher, Brenda Wakai-Torres. She had reached out to Valenzuela and a few other students during summer 2016 to brainstorm ideas for an art project that would be displayed in Humboldt Park, he recalls.

That August, Valenzuela’s ideal news headline turned into a 20-foot by 20-foot black and white art installation on a building in the 2700 block of West Division Street, near Paseo Boricua. The mural, dubbed “Today Is Tomorrow,” is their way of addressing how normalized Chicago’s violence has become, and to the detriment of the city’s Latino and Black neighborhoods.

“We think about Chicago in territories. We think about segregation. How many times do we sit down and talk about what we have in common?” explains Wakai-Torres, who is of Afro-Puerto Rican descent. “We can put our differences aside and we can work together for something that we hope for.”

Steven Cooper/Courtesy of Steven Cooper

She encouraged her students to do just that. After transferring to a new teaching position at Chicago High School for the Arts, Wakai-Torres asked her new student, Steven Cooper, to join the “Today Is Tomorrow” team. This August, with a grant from the Safe & Peaceful Communities Fund, Cooper and Valenzuela put on an interactive performance in front of the mural.

Inspired by a silent “Deer Boy” character in the Urban Theatre play, “Water & Power,” Cooper and his cohort dressed up in orange jumpsuits, representing those in prison whose voices are unheard. “One of the biggest group of people who we felt are undervalued are prisoners,” says Cooper, who is now a freshman acting major at Columbia College. “Sometimes they are denied rights or denied opportunities when they are released from prison, which obviously had led to a lot of recidivism rates in Chicago.”

Then, they invited about 35 passersby to sit in on a fishbowl conversation. Participants sat at a table, picked a piece of paper out of the fishbowl in front of them, and discussed the word written on the paper. Topics ranged from policing and intra-community violence.

For 19-year-old Cooper, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood, the fishbowl chat showed him that Chicago’s Black communities aren’t the only ones suffering from systemic inequalities. There are so many other underserved areas facing similar issues.“I’ve grown up in this city my entire life and there’s still parts of the city that I don’t understand just because I’m not from there,” Cooper explains, “which [helped me] realize [why] the government doesn’t necessarily understand where people from [different] ethnic backgrounds come from.”

“Today Is Tomorrow” mural//photo by Morgan Elise Johnson

The interactive performance showed Wakai-Torres, Valenzuela and Cooper that “Today Is Tomorrow” is more than a mural. It’s a movement that they hope to take to other neighborhoods across Chicago – whether that’s in the form of billboards, bumper stickers, T-shirts or transferring the installation to other locations.

When people see the “Today Is Tomorrow” mural, Wakai-Torres wants them to see a message of hope and unity.

“I think [Valenzuela and Cooper] are an excellent example of that dynamic and what it can be. Why we support both communities?” she adds. “We can strive for a safe environment for everybody.”

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