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Chicago Public School students create mural calling for change

“Art can tell stories and change narratives,” says Suzette Bross, Executive Director of CPS Lives. “This mural is an expression of giving back to the community and showing the good in humanity.”

A little girl with a mask helps with the muralIn June 2020, a group of Chicago students transformed the temporary plywood used to cover BMO Harris Bank’s main branch during protests into a work of art that expresses messages of hope and unity, representing the opportunity we all have to create a more inclusive community together.

As protests erupted across Chicago – and the country – and thousands of Chicagoans demonstrated peacefully, CPS Lives and BMO Harris Bank were eager to find ways to support our communities and stand against racial inequality and injustice. BMO – a longstanding supporter of both Chicago’s public schools and the city’s arts community – reached out to CPS Lives and asked if they wanted to create artwork on the plywood around the branch.

“BMO’s values of fairness, equality and inclusion perfectly align with ours,” says Suzette, who founded CPS Lives, a non-profit organization that creates artist residencies in Chicago Public Schools to share honest and positive stories about public schools. Local artists partner with a Chicago Public School during the academic year to collaborate on a project. The art they create gives young people in Chicago a platform to speak about their hopes, dreams, and ideas.

“There are 400,000 students in the CPS system, and many people in the city don’t know anything about them,” says Jeff Phillips, a local artist who works with CPS Lives. “This was an opportunity to give the students their own voice – in a really public way.”

Amplifying voices

Like protest, art can give a louder voice to people who aren’t being heard. The recent protests have given voice to people from all walks of life, joining together to demand change to make society more just and inclusive. Similarly, this group of Chicago Public School students and artists created a powerful public art project to send a message of their own.

“Protest and public art are similar expressions. They’re both a personal statement of values,” says Dorian Sylvain, a Chicago artist and CPS Lives collaborator. “Displaying art in the public spaces goes beyond aesthetics. It creates dialogue – and it’s human nature to want to be heard.”

Suzette reached out to Jeff and Dorian to collaborate, and they quickly got to work on a proposal and a design. Together, they came up with the idea of a mural made up of images and photos from CPS Lives artists and CPS schools, highlighting the proud academic achievements of graduating students – and surrounded by images of life at public schools across the city.

“Highlighting all these beautiful young faces that are usually somewhat anonymous – it not only empowers the kids who see themselves on that mural, but also other people who are like them. That can be very validating,” says Dorian.

Jeff agrees. “We wanted to evoke something positive and emotional, and to do what art is supposed to do – reflect the everyday in a new light.”

A creative collective

People with masks working on the muralTitled “If I Could Show the World,” the mural was named and assembled by students from more than 20 Chicago public schools participating in the CPS Lives program. Hyde Park Art Center donated its space, and more than 75 people came together to create the murals, including students who chose to spend their first day of summer vacation there.

“The experience was festive. We had music playing, it was a beautiful day, the students came in and they brought their friends. We just had a good time,” says Dorian. “The spirit of collective work, and the gratification of producing something together that one person couldn’t have done on their own – it’s so empowering. Sharing, listening, learning from each other – all those principles come out when we work together.”

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Jeff. “To see these kids creating together, and hearing them say things like ‘I feel like an artist’ – it was incredible.”

Inclusion and equality

CPS Lives is the first of several non-profits that will create art for BMO’s main branch windows over the coming months, serving as a visual reminder to continue our progress toward a more inclusive society. The art will be displayed in neighborhoods across Chicago as it rotates out of the bank’s windows.

BMO believes this is not a time to be silent. We will always stand up for a more just society where all people are valued equally. These murals are part of our pledge to speak up for what’s right, and to create space for other voices to be heard.

“Art is such a powerful and direct way to express hope and optimism,” says Jeff. “Public art speaks to the community. The message spreads. If you create something interesting and beautiful, you invite people in to learn more about your world – and that can make all the difference.”


BMO is committed to zero barriers to inclusion, and we strive for that vision by supporting real financial progress for our customers and communities.

Read about BMO’s recent $10 million donation through the United Way of Metro Chicago as part of Chicago’s Invest South/West initiative, our recent donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and Greater Twin Cities United Way, to support social and racial justice, and inclusion.

Learn more about community giving at BMO.

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