How it Began – My Story
It was a day like any other day, I was making a commute up the 405 heading toward LA to visit family. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a white wall with red graffiti writing on it… although I couldn’t make out the meaning these words, they spoke very clearly to me. Maybe it was more like they cried out to me. A plea for help! It was one of those moments in life you never forget. Those letters were meant for me to see, and more importantly – Do something about it!
While on my visit I started seeing more and more graffiti and then realized the next thing I could do was talk to my students. I was a teacher at Juvenile Hall at the time and well, I had a captive audience for discussions. That Monday I started asking the students – many of them taggers and gang members – ‘Why are you messing up the neighborhoods?’ Their response was surprising and understandable. They wanted recognition and attention for their efforts. Don’t we all? Writing on a wall made them feel important – connected – a part of something.
As I started looking into what was being done in the communities I noticed that no one was talking to these kids who were doing all the destruction. Sure they were putting new laws in place and people were busy painting over graffiti.
The kids were very eager to talk about graffiti. Everyone else was so busy running around in circles that they didn’t go to the source – our youth. I asked them questions like ‘what is a better use of your time and energy other than doing graffiti?’ Their responses were things like ‘sports, after school programs and public art.’
The concept of Public Art seemed like a valid solution. A lot of schools art programs were being cut and the creative outlet was getting shut down. Getting students to help create something artistic that will enhance an area and give them that connection and recognition they so eagerly sought. Now there’s an idea! And that’s the start of Operation Clean Slate – clean your slate, by not doing destructive behavior (graffiti) and literally help clean the walls, or wipe the slate clean if you will.
It wasn’t easy starting Operation Clean Slate – in fact I ran into many obstacles along the way. The strong desire to help kids and solve the graffiti problem kept me going. Getting the students involved was easy – they jumped right in to make a mural come to life. The pride they felt after completing the project was evident by their smiles and wanting to show their work to fellow students and family members.
Today, over 15 years later, the results are still the same. We’re making a difference in the lives of the students who participate and in the neighborhoods where we do our mural projects. Graffiti levels drop significantly where we paint murals are they are rarely tagged.
It’s a very satisfying feeling to be a part of a simple thing, something that makes a noticeable difference on the walls and in the lives of the youth we serve. And just like the students,.. I enjoy saying, “I did that!”
About the Founder
Michael Howard is an Educator and a Humanitarian. He grew up in a small town in Iowa and moved to California after receiving a Business degree at St. Ambrose University. He has spent five years as a teacher at various correctional facilities, including the Orange County Jail where he educated minors being tried as adults.
He has courageously sought answers to the graffiti dilemma by meeting students and gang members at their level. The information has enabled him to coordinate a volunteer movement that is a long term solution to an age old problem.
Michael is the author of the upcoming book, “Murals Make a Difference” and has been featured on NBC, national publications, and local newspapers, radio and television news channels promoting youth involvement in the community. He resides in Costa Mesa, California.