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For these children, a colorful piece of chalk is a powerful tool for self-expression

Jaden Maye, 8 creates art with Positive Chalk D.C.
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Jaden Maye, 8 creates art with Positive Chalk D.C.

It's that time of year again, as students and parents celebrate with back to school festivals and prepare for the year ahead.

On the warm Saturday last weekend in Washington, D.C., parents stood in line for free backpacks, live music filled the air and people indulged in shaved ice. But Penelope Marlett, 5, had a different idea on how to celebrate.

The sidewalk became a canvas in D.C. last weekend.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
The sidewalk became a canvas in D.C. last weekend.

"I'm just drawing a duck," she said as she filled in the outline of her picture with a fresh piece of bright pink chalk.

Penelope was taking part in Chalk Walk, an event organized by Positive Chalk and Chalk Riot.

Penelope Marlett is hard at work on her duck.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Penelope Marlett is hard at work on her duck.

Positive Chalk is a D.C.-based organization providing children with the tools and language to advocate for themselves. Its primary tool is chalk and the pavement is their stage.

Val Rucker-Bussie is a regular volunteer for the organization, and said chalk helped children imagine their communities in ways words might not be able to.

"We want to help to create a brave space for families and particularly for children," Rucker-Bussie said.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Val Suarez founded Positive Chalk as a grassroots initiative. As the Movement for Black Lives grew, people across the world lifted their voices, organized in their communities and marched. As the numbers grew, so did the police enforcement.

It was a time when many parents were hesitant to take young ones to marches and rallies.

Val Suarez founded Positive Chalk.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Val Suarez founded Positive Chalk.

Suarez recognized their isolation, so she bought chalk for the children in her community and provided them with the space to express their thoughts about the movement.

"She really wanted to bring a space to the kids that would allow them to transform the pavement to a landscape filled with positive affirmations and messages to the community," Rucker-Bussie said.

"While they weren't able to go to Black Lives Matter Plaza and protest with most of the community, they were able to get their voices heard through chalking."

In the months after protests began, Suarez traveled to numerous neighborhoods throughout the city. Since then, Positive Chalk has participated in more than 100 events. And Chelsea Ritter-Soronen, owner of Chalk Riot, a women-led street art crew, said Chalk Walk was her dream collaboration.

Dallas Carter, 4, enjoys the day out.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Dallas Carter, 4, enjoys the day out.

A few feet away from Penelope's duck art, Ritter-Soronen hovers over a large, colorful mural of animals, plants and a bright blue sky. It was created to inform Chalk Walk participants about the Anacostia Watershed, a mission in D.C. to clean, protect and restore the Anacostia River.

"It's always exciting to see other people turned on by the opportunity of sidewalk chalk," Ritter-Soronen said. "Something that both Positive Chalk and Chalk Riot share, and I think any pavement artist in the world, is that we understand that the ground is the one place in the world that we all share, whether we're aware or not, and that presents an opportunity to express ourselves in public."

Chelsea Ritter-Soronen creates a mural.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Chelsea Ritter-Soronen creates a mural.

"You can use household items like barbecue charcoal or brick chunks, and it's intergenerational. There's a form of nostalgia there that really brings generations together."

She said there were many benefits to chalk art, but when it came to advocacy and self-expression, the greatest quality of chalk was its fleeting stain.

Chalk Walk was filled with children and adults creating art across the space provided by the Phillips Collection.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Chalk Walk was filled with children and adults creating art across the space provided by the Phillips Collection.

"We know it's going to wash away. I think that introduces a level of freedom in expression, knowing that it's not going to be there forever," Ritter-Soronen said. "When we create on paper or in coloring books or on designated spaces on walls, there's a finite limit to where and how you can create. But when we create on the sidewalk, I hope people can see that they can just sprawl with color and take up space."

Chalk Walk was filled with children and adults creating art across the space provided by the Phillips Collection, which also contributed to the back-to-school bash. The organization donated 50 backpacks to the festival and welcomed unfamiliar faces into their space without questions or hesitation.

Alex Allen of Positive Chalk D.C. creates a Pokémon piece.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Alex Allen of Positive Chalk D.C. creates a Pokémon piece.

Nehemiah Dixon III, the senior director for community engagement at the Phillips Collection, said he immediately agreed to collaborate with Positive Chalk when the opportunity was presented.

"Art is about wellness, and I think in a lot of ways art is a demonstration of resilience," Dixon said. "Art in the spirit of making, in the spirit of creating — it's like the closest thing to joy. They always say laughter is the best medicine, well so is joy. And so, if we can give someone moments of joy, I think we're accomplishing our mission."

People laughed as they talked with each other and took pictures with their chalk art. Joy is the best word to describe the event, but Penelope put it in her own words: "I like drawing about chalk."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.