The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 reignited country-wide interest and participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking a racial awakening in the United States that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. And while the movement’s push for racial equality and justice has been the most visible in urban cities, the message has also reached rural towns, including Durango.
Since Floyd was killed by a white police officer, the Southwest Movement for Black Lives Matter has held peaceful rallies in Buckley Park every Friday evening. Their movement, which is led by Black voices, offers everyone an opportunity to listen and learn from the experiences of Black residents.
Two Fort Lewis College friends, Allie Wolfe, a senior majoring in Psychology, and Tatyana Trujillo (Environmental Studies, ’20), attended the rallies and found themselves inspired to carry the message to other parts of Durango. After a great deal of contemplation, they decided to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on the iconic east-facing wall of College Drive’s Everyday gas station.
“When we started, my mentality was that I didn’t want to take attention away from the Black voices leading this movement,” says Trujillo, a Latinx woman. “But I have a talent: my art, which is the most accessible form of protest. With art, you don’t need a degree to understand it. You don’t need a background in advocacy. Everyone can grab a paintbrush and paint what they feel on a wall.”
And that’s how the project began. For two weeks, just down the hill from FLC, Trujillo and Wolfe would gather in the warm afternoon sun and paint alongside dozens of volunteers ranging from toddlers to teenagers and a couple of FLC professors.
Today, the larger-than-life mural is a hallmark of the local Black Lives Matter movement. The mural has appeared multiple times in the Durango Herald and was featured in The New York Times. Every day, people pause in front of the mural to have their photos taken.
Although the mural has taken on a life of its own, Wolfe and Trujillo’s original intent was simple: to make a statement for Black youth in predominantly white Durango while also creating a way to safely engage kids with a movement that’s taken the nation by storm.
According to Wolfe, who designed the piece that Trujillo then transformed into a large-scale format, the collaborative process of painting the mural was just as powerful as the resulting product. The pair reached out to the Southwest Movement for Black Lives Matter to ensure that Black voices were driving the art. As Trujillo recalls, “We told them, ‘We’re your paintbrushes. Tell us how to portray this.’”
Wolfe’s initial design featured an homage to Floyd. Wolfe was particularly inspired by Floyd’s daughter, but members of the SWBLM felt it would be better to depict an image that was more universal. As one member explained, Floyd was the tipping point that led nearly 26 million people to march in support of BLM, but “he’s not the whole movement.” Wolfe incorporated the group’s feedback and proposed another drawing that was intended to be an androgynous Black person at the center of the mural.
The mural started taking shape in mid-June with Trujillo on the ladder and Wolfe helping guide the group of volunteer artists that included kids from The Hive, a Durango-based nonprofit. As color splashed across the wall, people would stop to chat with the artists. The tone was typically friendly and curious.
“As soon as Black Lives Matter went up, some people driving by would yell ‘all lives matter!’ or nasty slurs,” says Wolfe, who identifies as a white cis woman.
Overall, the community’s positive engagement and reception of the mural was humbling. One person dropped off a case of water every day. Another gave the artists $10. Once, a man brought a shovel and offered to remove the weeds along the bottom of the wall.
“So many people just wanted to support the movement and asked for nothing in return,” says Trujillo.
Opposition from other community members wore down both women at different points. Wolfe, who struggles with chronic physical and mental illnesses, became sick, while Trujillo began experiencing severe anxiety for the first time in her life. However, the women saw the project through, thanks to encouragement from their mentors, who reminded them to focus on the reasons they began the mural in the first place.
“We talked nearly every day while they were painting,” recalls Associate Professor of Sociology Benjamin Waddell. “There were difficult moments but Allie and Tatyana both have strong moral compasses. They knew why they were there, and the fact that they saw the project through, despite the backlash they received, is reflective of who they are as individuals. Their devotion to equality and progressive social change reflects the type of community action that we hope all of our students will take into the world following their time at FLC.”
“The project was never about us; it was for the youth and the cause,” says Trujillo. “The mental issues we experienced during the process are reflective of what Black Americans, and so many other minorities, endure every day of their lives.”
One night toward the end of the project, Trujillo got a text from a good friend in California asking if her sister-in-law, a journalist for The New York Times, could interview Trujillo and Wolfe for a piece she was working on about youth and social justice. Trujillo thought it was a joke at first, but the next thing she knew, a photographer was flying out to capture the artists and the kids who participated in the creation of the mural. For the photo shoot, the kids returned to the wall to tell their stories.
These young activists, who were mostly Black, Latinx, and Native American, used a cut-out stencil shaped like a raised fist to create their own custom fists across the bottom of the panel. Each fist was then decorated to express their individual feelings about ending police violence against Black people and celebrating the power of Black voices.
"It was incredible to hear such young voices expressing clear and mature thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement. We often forget how in tune children are with the world around them. We have so much to learn from the youth."
“It was incredible to hear such young voices expressing clear and mature thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement. We often forget how in tune children are with the world around them. We have so much to learn from the youth,” Trujillo says.
The full story was published in the print-only edition of The New York Times for Kids on July 26, 2020, marking a dramatic end to a project that took 60 hours, nine layers of spray paint, and countless trips to Home Depot.
“I want to use my privilege to elevate the voices of those who are already speaking for themselves,” says Wolfe.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Wolfe is in her fifth year at FLC, planning to graduate with a major in Psychology, something she says would not be possible without the support of her professors and the resources available at FLC:
“I was not an easy person to support during college, but I’ve had these professors who remind me I’m not a failure for having mental illness. They’re the only reason I haven’t dropped out. They’ve gone out of their way to invest so much in me. I want to show them that it’s been worth it. I want to make them proud. They not only changed my life but they’re the reason I’m still alive. These professors see you beyond your academics. Relationships like these aren’t made at larger institutions when you’re sitting in an auditorium with a clicker and a thousand students.”
While Wolfe wraps up her final semester at FLC, Trujillo just started grad school at the University of New Mexico on a full-ride scholarship in Chicano Studies. She’s also working with youth agricultural programs in Albuquerque where she was raised by her aunt and grandfather, who was a machinist and “heavy union man.”
“Since I was a baby, Grandpa would take me to sit-ins,” she says. “He also raised me to give back to the places that helped me most. So, I’m going back to the mentors who helped me through middle school and high school, pushing me to understand what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet. I have the privilege and the education, and with that comes responsibility.”