Banner Day

A small crowd stood on the sidewalk last Thursday, bracing themselves against a cold wind as they gazed up at the face of the Goffe Street Armory. Two men in a cherry picker bucket were installing screws through the grommets of a giant banner, attaching it point by point to the building. As they worked, the banner slowly unfurled, and the serious, determined expression of 16-year-old New Havener Benjamin Brown was revealed, arms crossed over his chest above the words: “I will continue to fight.”

Like his peers on nine other banners hung citywide, Brown has a powerful message, of both hope and need, to deliver to the city as part of a project called IMatter: The Art of Empowerment, created by New Haven commercial photographer, artist and educator Rob Goldman. Brown’s message is even more urgent than those of his peers. He missed the banner-raising because he was in the hospital, yet again, for brain cancer treatment.

Brown’s grandmother, Alfreda Edwards, was nearly speechless as she watched his 18- by 22-foot image emerge. His uncle, Arthur Edwards, seemed quietly awed, not only by the beautiful black and white image of his nephew but also by the powerful support of the community, as about 50 people—friends, family, the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the city’s director of youth services and other well-wishers—gathered beside the installation truck with its roaring engine.

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“These signs, they really change the landscape of New Haven. They really showcase the talents our kids have, the thoughts that they have,” says Arthur Edwards, who works for the Board of Education. He says he looks forward to seeing IMatter expand into other areas of the city. But for that day, its epicenter was his own family, giving them an opportunity to reach out to other families with children suffering serious medical issues. “When you have this type of support,” he says, “it really goes a long way.”

It was a long way to New Haven and the realization of this multimedia program’s vision for Goldman, though the last few steps have happened at a run as IMatter caught on and took off. He traces its genesis back seven years to Long Island, where he executed a similar project, a series of photographs of local teenagers and their quotations that was publicly displayed with the aim of starting a dialogue between youth and their elders. Goldman hoped to help older citizens—himself included—to “move past the tendency… to be so judging” of teenagers and “break down the wall between generations.” Teens, he found, were suffering “more than probably ever” from a host of serious problems, and no one seemed to be listening.

But that first project foundered, partly for lack of funding, partly for lack of services in response to the problems that surfaced and partly due to the stigma of speaking out. Goldman was both discouraged and “ignited.” “I wasn’t about to give up on the bigger question, on the bigger calling, and I realized that I could open up the dialogue a lot more successfully if I could come through the door of positivity,” he says.

In New Haven, IMatter is finally gaining the traction Goldman dreamed of with its new, more positive message—what the project’s press release calls a “citywide public celebration of self-worth, compassion and community.” That sense of self-worth is reflected in New Haven’s IMatter images. “I Represent the Unrepresented,” declares a young Muslim woman named Yasmin, whose large-scale photograph is displayed at the entrance to the Metropolitan Business Academy high school on Water Street. “I Am the Future of This World,” insists a young man named Angel on a Crown Street banner at LoRicco Tower. On Chapel Street, Mijae proclaims, “I Am Becoming An Educated Black Woman in America.” In addition to two banners each on Crown and Chapel and the one at Metro high school, four more are visible from the highway on the roof of 111 Water Street. Goldman hopes to install another on fire department headquarters at 952 Grand Avenue in the next few weeks.

IMatter has other plans ahead. A partnership with WYBC radio will soon add an audio component, with “IMatter Moments” in which featured teenagers get to voice their thoughts and concerns. An IMatter Youth Walk to be installed this spring will feature photographs on aluminum panels displayed at ground level, where walkers can stop and scan them for more information about their subjects. Also this spring, the lobby of City Hall will become host to 10 more IMatter photographs.

The project’s program manager Bo Sandine, a New Haven native who grew up just a few blocks from the armory, says he’s excited to see Ben Brown’s banner go up there. “I see the need for it. I grew up with just a lot of racial issues, income disparity, people not being recognized or heard,” he says. “It seems like it’s only kind of gotten that way more, so I think something like the IMatter project helps bridge that divide.”

In front of the armory, Brown’s older sister Brianna, who traveled from Virginia to see the banner’s unveiling, held up her cell phone to livestream the event to her mother, Kimberly Edwards, who was at the hospital with Ben. Later, Edwards, well known in New Haven as Ward 19’s alderperson, called from the hallway outside her son’s hospital room. She wasn’t sure he’d even go to the photo shoot two months ago, she admits, because he’d lost his hair, and he was a “different” young man than when he’d first signed up to be included. She says she brought along a hoodie and a hat, in case he wanted to cover his head, but he refused. “That empowered me right there, and it touched my heart,” she says. She and Brown looked at the banner together on her phone, she says, and were wowed by the size and the power of it.

Edwards describes her son as “a man of few words,” a characterization Goldman agreed with as he stood in front of the armory that afternoon. “He didn’t have much to say,” Goldman said as he gazed up at the new banner. “He’s got a lot to say today.”

Photo Key:

1. The banner goes up on the Goffe Street Armory.
2. Onlookers.
3. Arthur Edwards speaks to the crowd.
4. IMatter founder/director Rob Goldman.
5. Superintendent of New Haven Public Schools Carol Birks.
6. Family and friends.
7. Banner outside Metropolitan Business Academy.
8. Banners along Chapel Street.

IMatter Project
(516) 848-4790 | info@imatterproject.com
www.imatterproject.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-6 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 7-8 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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