Using Art to Empower Poor Communities

Barefoot Artists
As part of a Barefoot Artists project, residents of Balata, the West Bank's largest refugee camp, paint the "Palestinian Tree of Life."

In the summer of 2011, a group of artists, leaders of a local women’s center, students at a girl’s school, and other local residents gathered in Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. Together with the artist Lily Yeh, founder of the nonprofit arts organization Barefoot Artists, they created a brightly colored mural of a tree that Yeh named the “Palestinian Tree of Life.” It’s a bright spot in a maze of three-story concrete blocks—in the camp, 23,000 people occupy a space of less than one square mile.

Lily Yeh and Barefoot Artists travel the world, engaging impoverished communities in collaborative arts projects to beautify their neighborhoods. They’ve conducted painting and performance workshops with children in the Ivory Coast. In Dzegvi, Georgia, they encouraged children and adults to take hundreds of photos that they then presented to their village. And in the heavily polluted outskirts of Beijing, China, the group worked with students, teachers, and staff to renovate their school, which is housed in a former factory and serves 520 children, mostly from low-income migrant families. The group believes that these participatory arts projects not only improve the physical environment, but also build social trust.

Before she started Barefoot Artists, Yeh had worked for years in Philadelphia, where in 1986, she brought a group of North Philadelphia residents together to convert a vacant lot into an art park with mosaic sculptures and murals. Over the years, she was joined by other artists and educators and, together, they created the Village of the Arts and Humanities, which offers arts and educational programs and has transformed more than 150 parcels of vacant land in Philadelphia into parks and gardens.