The power of paint and a sense of belonging

By: Andrew Campanella

Last Upated: May 18, 2021



A Tennessee traditional public middle school partnered with the Memphis Police Department to make trips to school more welcoming.


Kingsbury Middle School recently drew on the power of paint—and a partnership with the Memphis Police Department— to fight gang graffiti and improve its school neighborhood.   

Kingsbury Middle School students paint a mural to build community spirit The area that the public school serves struggles with gang violence, and the fences near the school are often speckled with gang graffiti. In an inspiring act of community spirit, the middle school and local police department decided to cover up the gang signs with a gigantic mural.

“One of the reasons young people join gangs is because they don’t have a sense of belonging,” said Officer Cassandra Leake of the Memphis Police Department. “When young people get invested in their communities and school, they start to see they do have a belonging somewhere, and it does deter them from getting involved in gangs.”

When Leake and Kingsbury Middle School Principal Dr. Tarcia Gilliam-Parrish brought the idea of a mural to the students, everyone wanted to participate. From more than 600 students, the most dedicated ones were selected. “[We] made sure we paid attention to those who were really interested in doing this,” described Leake. 

“We ended up with 38 students who could not wait to get started,” Leake said. “We came up with two dates, and just to show you how excited the students were, both of those days were extremely hot, in the high ‘80s, and not one student complained. We had to make them come in and have lunch, because they did not want to stop painting.”

“The police director was here for two hours while the students painted, and that was very important for us,” added Dr. Gilliam-Parrish. “He took time out of his day to come to our community and show our students that he cared and that meant the world to them. It was just a fantastic time.”

The mural design was created by Tony Davenport, art instructor at Kingsbury Middle School, to showcase the diversity and unity in the community.  

“The design consists of students in the community, schools, different businesses, neighborhoods, all represented in one mural,” Davenport said. “The goal was to get the kids to invest in something in the community and that mural was the way to do it.”

For Davenport, positive change in a community needs to come from within. “When it’s done by people in the community, it has more credibility,” he said.

 While much of the mural has been painted, Davenport plans to add to it in coming weeks.

“We have a local ice cream shop that students love to go to and that will be added,” said Dr. Gilliam-Parrish. “The playground that’s just across the street from the mural will be added. It’s going to be a fun ongoing project.”

The school’s mural even inspired another member of the community, Grant Parham III, to step up and paint a mural next to Davenport’s. While Parham works the night shift at FedEx, he’s spent more than 80 hours painting the mural during the day!

“That’s what the citizens of Memphis are about; they come together to help make their city a better place for everyone,” said Leake.

The community’s collaboration to make Kingsbury a more positive place for students is truly inspiring. It also reflects the learning environment at Kingsbury Middle School, which seeks to blend structure with creativity.

Kingsbury Middle School students celebrate school choice “Our children are automatically creative,” said Shawana Hayes, Kingsbury’s social studies teacher. “They come from many diversities, so they’re going to automatically bring what they know from their cultures. We have the cultural perspective along with their creative minds, and so great things are going to happen.”

 “Most of our students are so eager to help and leave their mark in a positive way, so this was just another opportunity for them to make the community a better place,” said Dr. Gilliam-Parrish.

Kingsbury Middle School staff pose with Memphis police department The mural brightened not only students’ lives but also those of countless others in the community.

“We had such positive feedback,” said Leake, “Everybody that lives there was stopping, thumbs up, honking the horn, just really excited to see the graffiti gone and something beautiful and bold being put up. The kids are now going to see something really positive.”



Read more: 5 Questions for Dr. Tarcia Gilliam-Parrish, Kingsbury Middle School and Officer Cassandra Leake, Memphis Police Department


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