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Tsipi Ben-Haim: “This is how you make the change”

We create huge murals and mosaics across New York City and around the world. We do this with small donations and even with these smaller contributions have been able to complete more than I ever thought. One of the reasons for that is that I enjoy friend-raising, connecting people from all walks of life to […]

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We create huge murals and mosaics across New York City and around the world. We do this with small donations and even with these smaller contributions have been able to complete more than I ever thought. One of the reasons for that is that I enjoy friend-raising, connecting people from all walks of life to what we do. So they feel connected and many times we get in-kind donations of expensive materials or pro-bono services. It cuts a lot of the cost of the project.


As a part of our series about Social Impact Heroes, I had the pleasure to interview Tsipi Ben-Haim the Founder, Executive & Creative Director of CITYarts, Inc., a public art non-profit organization in New York City celebrating its 30th Anniversary. In 1989, with a vision and a dream to engage youth in actively transforming New York City through art, Tsipi took the helm of a previous organization, CITYarts Workshop (which was closed, 1969–88), changing its name and mission to found CITYarts, Inc. Now, the focus of the organization is aimed at the Voices of our Youth and empowering them to create murals and mosaic projects that activate their imagination and desire to make a difference in the world.

Through creativity, perseverance, and determination, she is largely responsible for the success of over 300 public art projects, including murals, mosaics, and sculptures, throughout the 5 boroughs of New York City and beyond. After 9/11, she created the Young Minds Build Bridges program, which connects youth from different countries and cultures around the world to address civic and social issues like the struggle for Peace and the speed of Climate Change. To date, CITYarts has impacted over 200,000 kids, collaborated with more than 500 artists, partnered with over 1,500 sponsors, and engaged over 500,000 volunteers.

Tsipi holds a B.A. from Tel-Aviv University and a Master’s degree from New York University. Outside of her work with CITYarts, Tsipi is an accomplished poet, writer, public speaker, and art critic for various magazines and foreign press outlets. As a curator, Tsipi organized several exhibitions, including the recent traveling CITYarts exhibition Pieces for Peace with Youth from Around the World, which was most recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, at the European Union Parliament in Brussels, and the U.N. headquarters in New York and Geneva, among other locations, with plans already underway for bringing the exhibition to Poland, Austria, Panama, and Hungary.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The voices of our children. I strongly believe that when kids create, they do not destroy. And in spite of the fact that it seems so simple and so understandable, people tend to not listen to our youth, especially teenagers. We tend not to ask them for their opinions, people don’t ask them to get actively involved in doing something impactful for themselves and for their community. It starts with friends, family, siblings, etc. There are millions of creative young minds out there, minds that are just waiting to get involved and engaged in a productive, interesting project. If they are not being asked to do something positive, they may be asked to do something negative! Activating that youthful force and their amazing imagination became a goal of mine.

I chose to do CITYarts through a combination of inspirations. In my past, I would write about cultural topics, I’m married to an artist, Zigi Ben-Haim and see his creative process on a daily basis, and the birth of my son, Yori, 33 years ago. My husband helped me develop a critical eye for not just looking at art, but understanding what goes into it. So when I heard about an organization that worked with artists to create murals and mosaics in New York neighborhoods closed, I thought it created a void for artists and for youth that need to be involved in something positive, especially in after school programs.

It was then that I decided it’s not enough for me to write about it, I want to do it, and started CITYarts. The organization provides our youth opportunities to change their own lives and transform their own communities. The artist became an assistant to the youth, there to help them express their ideas creatively by painting, drawing, mosaic, and poetry. Youth work in collaboration with the artist. The artists aren’t telling the youth what to do, they’re asking them, what would they like to do? They are helping the creative process so the youth feel a sense of ownership over the artwork they are creating. It’s what they need for their community that drives the creative process. The artist is required to listen to their ideas and show them the way to translate it visually. That gets youth, first and foremost, off the streets and away from trouble in New York’s five boroughs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

CITYarts runs a program Kids for Justice where we take youth to court so they can see the process of a trial and then create a visual representation from their experience. When this program launched, I racked my brain for who would be an interesting justice advocate to bring into this project. One day, I was having coffee at Union Square Café and still thinking on this topic when right in front of me was Susan Sarandon. I knew then she was my lady of justice so to speak. I was considering the best way to approach her and what to say when I noticed she was getting up to leave. I knew if I didn’t do it right then I would lose her so I went up and gave her my card and told her, “CITYarts Kids for Justice needs you,” and turned away. Susan put her hand on my shoulder to turn me around and said, “This is my assistant and he will call you today.” And he did! She came and worked on the mural with us and has been a supporter of the organization ever since.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Years ago, I was giving instructions for a paint pickup and said our wall is 60 x 20, and that if you go to the paint store they will calculate how much paint is needed. The next day, I arrived at the site and I see all these paint buckets and asked why there is so much. They said, “Well, you told me 60 x 20 meters.” Given this was a European person, she thought I meant meters not feet. I learned an important lesson that day that you can never assume someone knows what you are thinking, that you have to be very specific and clear when giving instructions, especially to the staff and the people that you work and collaborate with. Since then, when a staff member comes to me and I have to ask “how did that happen?” and they say “I assumed,” I tell them I don’t want to hear that word, there is no question not worth asking if something is unclear. Though this was a funny error, our projects do not allow for any funny mistakes. The creative process of creating a mural needs to be so very fine-tuned in many ways. Especially since we work on scaffolding.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

It’s enough to walk the neighborhoods that we touched and created murals or mosaic in, to see kids playing in the playground with the mural behind them, but there are a few specific examples that come to mind.

David Beckham chose to play soccer with the kids at Jacob Schiff playground in Harlem because of our mosaic. It gave the kids memories for a lifetime that David Beckham came to play with them.

We brought Leland Melvin, the astronaut, to Hamilton Grange Middle School in Harlem and they created a science room following that event because the kids were so inspired by him.

There was previously homeless youth that came to live in a building in South Bronx where they weren’t welcomed by the neighborhood. Then they created an amazing mural with their portraits that was seen by millions during a Super Bowl commercial. The next day neighborhood kids came to escort these previously homeless kids to school. They became local celebrities. We also created savings accounts for them because we were able to get some funds from the advertising agency. That changed their lives.

Of the Longfellow Avenue mural in NYC, the youth who worked on it have told me how it impacted them. A previously homeless girl emailed me saying she missed the time spent on the project remembering how the mural process “Stopped fights, brought the kids together,” and gave them a goal to reach together crediting it to putting her on a path to success. Another kid said, “I did that, my mother will be proud of me,” while another spoke of the choice they made to do the mural instead of selling drugs on the corner of the street.

In a recent Pieces for Peace Exhibition Celebration in Brooklyn, sponsored by councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel, she told the story of how she was working on a CITYarts mural that changed her life. She considered herself a CITYarts kid.

A CITYarts intern communicated to me how much she has learned with her time at the organization and how she plans to bring it to her own organization in Pakistan.

This is how you make the change. It’s a real change, a real impact in the community, a real impact globally. Connecting youth to create Mosaic Peace Walls around the world and to become Peace Wall keepers gives them an opportunity to be active in changing their neighborhoods, and in building their lives for a better future. We now have five CITYarts Peace Walls in Karachi, Pakistan; Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel; London, UK; Berlin, Germany; and Harlem, NY, USA. All these kids are also getting our letters of support and using CITYarts in their resumes when they go to college because it gives them community involvement credits.

The Peace Wall idea came to me right after the tragedy of 9/11. I knew we could not just talk about a global village, we must do something to connect our youth around the world. When kids started asking me in schools, “why are they doing this to us?” I asked them back, “Who are they?” That was the moment they did not know how to answer — who are their colleagues, their peers around the world that they needed to get to know. This is when I knew I had to connect them.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Bernard was a 12-year-old boy I met on the street when I was looking for youth to involve in our Snapple mural. He was on the street with another kid, his cousin, and I asked them if they would like to paint and they said yes. He not only painted with us but he also was one of the kids I arranged to have a summer job with Snapple after school when the mural was completed.

I made a deal with Snapple that not only would they pay us to produce the mural on the side of their factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but after the mural was complete they would give the kids jobs. The jobs would allow them to see a film, have some food, to stay off the street. 25 years ago, Red Hook was in very bad shape and drugs were everywhere.

Recently, when Bernard saw me at the opening of the new Blick Art Store in Brooklyn, he came over to me and said, “Your name is ringing in my head. I can’t forget this name. Are you the same Tsipi?” I invited him to the office and asked him if he’d like to become an artist teacher in one of our challenging schools, Murray Hill Academy, where he is now a CITYarts Artist Teacher.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I can sum it up with, provide us the means to engage our youth. There are many ways to do this:

  • Community: Find the spaces, the walls, identify kids that are walking the street with nothing to do.
  • Politicians: Allocate funds and provide letters of support to show how important the work is to transform the community and the youth’s lives. We send local elected officials questionnaires so they can take an active role in looking at their community to see what is happening and where help is needed.
  • Society: We need to give youth the opportunity to create. If they have a culture trusting and believing in them, they will be able and capable of doing positive projects to contribute to the community. There are billions of creative young minds around the world who have time and imagination on their hands. We must allow them to utilize this imagination to build a world they will come to lead. They need the opportunity to engage in something positive whether it be music, arts, dance, or technology. If we engage them and allow them the space to discover themselves, they can come up with amazing creations and innovative ideas to change our society for the better.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is exemplified when someone cares and dares to make a difference. It is not enough to have great ideas, a lot of people have great ideas, but you need to find a way to implement them. And hopefully inspire others that are working with you in the process from the staff to the board, interns, and volunteers. A leader needs to provide the GPS to the mission of the organization through its programs and projects. Then they need to ensure that each person using this roadmap feels ownership over their piece and can have an opinion, that they are not just doing what someone else wants them to do, they believe in it and are proud of it too. Appreciation from the top down also goes a long way with a team.

I would also add that good leadership is constantly asking and evaluating what can be done even better next event if the last event was a success.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Running a not-for-profit is 24/7: This is not a job. It is a mission, it’s a belief. I actually hate hearing “great job” because it’s not a job at all to me. When I started out, once I put my son to bed at 7–8 pm, I went back to work for hours. Being mission-driven, you constantly feel you’re not doing enough and it takes over your life a bit.
  2. The importance of the Board of Directors: Choosing and bringing together a group of people to serve as your board is incredibly important. Most important is selecting a group that is passionate about the mission and truly believe in it so they will do everything they can to help.
  3. The importance of staff: Just as important as the board is the staff. The staff should also believe in the mission and be passionate about it as well as being willing and capable and to perform their role. We’ve brought in people that worked on the murals as a youth because we know they understand the impact the organization can make.
  4. Networking: I always say I’m by my desk too much; I should be out meeting people to spread the mission as much as possible. Last year, I went to Miami Art Basel and met Sean Kelly, a prominent NYC gallery owner. I greatly admire what he does and how he promotes his artists so I offered to honor him at the next CITYarts gala, and we did! You don’t meet these people when everyone is hiding in their office doing work. I admire how he promotes his artists! It’s important to join industry groups and go to that event even if you are tired after a long day’s work.
  5. Fundraising and Friendraising: We create huge murals and mosaics across New York City and around the world. We do this with small donations and even with these smaller contributions have been able to complete more than I ever thought. One of the reasons for that is that I enjoy friend-raising, connecting people from all walks of life to what we do. So they feel connected and many times we get in-kind donations of expensive materials or pro-bono services. It cuts a lot of the cost of the project.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I started the new program after 9/11, Young Minds Build Bridges producing the Pieces for Peace project, my idea was to create a movement of youth to hold hands around the world for peace through art. The idea was for them to start with small visuals to express “what peace looks like to me,” with painting, drawings, and poems.

I strongly believe that the youth of all countries will continue to create these pieces and travel to see them at our exhibitions around the world. Eventually joining hands in person, not just through art. There are 10,000 art pieces already on CITYarts’ website from 94 countries, and I hope they will be soon in all the 193 countries and stand as a reminder for peace every time they are seen — peace to their country, peace to their community.

Look at how the youth came together and organized for global warming. They are capable and can do miracles if we give them the opportunities to come together and create a road map for peace. These are the next generation of leaders.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father told me when I was a little girl, “If you can dream it, you can bring it about.” This became my guiding star. When I was four years old, I decided to catch the sun because it was so visually beautiful and I always saw it going down in the same place. Everyone thought this was silly and how would I do this, but my father told me, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t if you decide you want to go for something. If you fail in one way, try something else. But at least you tried.” I feel like every one of us can catch their sun in their own way and I’ve tried to pass this down to my own son, Yori.

Years later when I decided to create a Peace Wall in a very historical area in Berlin, everyone wondered how I would ever get a permit for that. It was on a building, by an open space, where once a senior Jewish population lived during WWII who were sent to concentration camps: When I decided in spite of that to call the owner of that building after I shared my vision, he asked, “Where have you been until now?” and helped make this dream a reality. It’s CITYarts’ fifth mosaic Peace Wall! I caught the sun!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would say George Clooney who has served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Now that he is a father and understands we need to bring peace through youth I’m sure we could have an interesting breakfast. His wife, Amal Clooney, is also an amazing advocate for justice.

I also think Mr. Clooney could make a few calls and have the UN Secretary-General António Guterres join. We have received support from the UN but I think over breakfast they could help us bring together the youth of all 193 states under the UN Flag uniting our future leaders who will be able to bring peace to us all.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@CITYartsInc — Instagram

@CITYartsInc — Facebook

@CITYartsInc — Twitter

@CITYarts — Youtube

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