Pen and Paint Bringing the Community Together: How a Nonprofit is Spreading the Universal Language of Art in Houston

By Eshaan Mani

            With the world being brought closer by social media, increased global mobility, and the ability to share knowledge with the tap of a key, America’s diversity is increasing, and a prime example of this is in the city of Houston. Houston welcomes more immigrants and refugees than any other city in the US, and is a melting pot of languages, cultures, ideas, and faces. The Gulfton neighborhood in Houston is home to the majority of these immigrants and refugees, and there is an organization whose vision is to unite the community under the magic of art for these newcomers to Houston. 

            That organization is CHAT, or Culture of Health – Advancing Together. CHAT started what they would love to see as an annual creative writing contest last summer, in association with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities initiative and as part of the Visit my Neighborhood program. This contest gave kids and adults of all backgrounds the opportunity to share their talent and submit their writing.  In its first writing contest, twelve writing pieces were chosen as the inspiration for murals, which would be painted along the ‘Gulfton Story Trail’, encompassing the whole neighborhood. 

            My involvement with CHAT was rather by chance. I was bored one day last summer and was browsing the internet for any writing contests I could enter, as writing is my passion. I found CHAT’s website and read about the contest. I was immediately intrigued and loved the initiative. Fueled by the motivation of a good cause, I began writing a multi-faceted poem about family, belief in oneself, and diversity. I submitted to the contest and waited.

            In mid-October, nine artists employed by CHAT chose the pieces which they were inspired by and began the creative process. My poem was chosen by Vivienne Dang, a wonderful and talented artist, to depict on the wall of Jane Long Academy. “The mural took me six days…This is my hobby, so I came on the weekends and at night after work, and painted. I worked with the administration at Jane Long, and I needed to portray the school’s spirit as well as honor the Gulfton Story Trail’s initiatives for the project. I really believe that diversity is seeing beyond the colors of our skin and embracing our differences,” Ms. Dang said. 

            On April 2, I received the news that my writing submission served as an inspiration for Ms. Dang’s work, and was told that the tour of the murals would be that Saturday. So, I woke up bright and early, and journeyed to the Gulfton neighborhood. I had the privilege to meet the founder of CHAT, Dr. Aisha Siddiqui. Dr. Siddiqui explained her shift from Doctor of Public Health to nonprofit founder. She had always wished she could help society in a significant way. Through her doctorate at UT, she met many immigrant women who faced troubles adapting to a new society. Then she realized that she needed to help the immigrants and refugees in Southwest Houston live a better life in the United States. 

            Dr. Siddiqui informed me that “more than one hundred languages are spoken in this area, but art is the universal language… there is no need to understand any language for art. The pen and paint can touch hearts and change lives, and by combining them, I hope to bring together this community of multiple ethnicities”. While we were driving around the area, I felt a renewed affinity for art as I looked at the murals painted on such a grand scale. As Dr. Siddiqui said, “you can just take a full day standing here and looking at these paintings, taking in each detail and how the colors pop out at you. It is magical”. 

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