By Tina Irgang
In the 1970s, Ruth Lande Shuman realized that the dark, prison-like environment in many public schools was contributing to poor student and teacher performance. She decided to fix the problem and founded Publicolor, a nonprofit that initially worked with students to paint their schools and other public buildings. Today, it has expanded into a long-term educational support, offering immersion programs and college scholarships. Publicolor also provides volunteer and mentoring opportunities for executives, encouraging them to engage with struggling students while improving public spaces.
How did you come up with the concept for Publicolor?
Shuman: In the ‘70s, I got introduced to these two people who were starting a one-ring, European-style circus called the Big Apple Circus, and I just fell in love with what they were trying to do. I loved that they were going to have an after-school program for low-income kids. … They did it in middle schools in East Harlem, and so I would go in and visit these schools, see the program, and each time I went, I was absolutely horrified by how prison-like these schools looked and felt. They were just so cold and uninviting, and I thought, my God, if I were a kid, there’s no question that I would be putting graffiti on the walls — not to make them ugly, but rather to beautify them. …
At the same time, I was getting my masters degree in industrial design and did a study on the psychological effect of color, and that’s when the light blub went on: If I put a paint brush in the hands of disaffected students, … they’ll develop a sense of pride and ownership and start going to school more often. … I mentioned this to the woman who ran the arts and education program for the circus, who happened to be an educator, and she said, I love it, come do my school. Her school was a huge educational complex in East Harlem. …
A few weeks later, she said, I told some people at Estee Lauder about your idea and they want to meet you. So I met with these women, and they loved what I had planned to do and wanted to get involved. … While we were in the school painting in the afternoons, I would go to Estee Lauder in the mornings and present to different companies under their umbrella … and we increased their level of volunteerism from something like 75 to about 200 [people]. Then I added another 100 between my friends and some parents and teachers. So we were 300 in that building. The results were amazing. (See before-and-after pictures of a school painted by Publicolor.)
You have executives come in and paint along with students. How do the students and the executives benefit from doing that work together?
Shuman: We deliberately ask volunteers to informally mentor the students by describing their work and the education they need to do it. That opens up so many more options to our kids than they had ever thought of. Then we ask the volunteers to ask the students what they see as their skills and interests, and then for the volunteer to suggest certain career options to the kids. We also have corporate volunteers who tutor, and they also act as mentors to our students. … So they’re introducing our kids to new points of view, new experiences.
From the volunteer’s point of view, I think what I’ve noticed is that it engenders a great sense of pride in their company, and I think that … they pick up the message that if their company cares enough to be involved, it must care about them as well. That’s got to engender a phenomenal feeling of loyalty. And I think also, it introduces executives to the public school system. Many of them would not get inside a public school. Most of their kids go to private or parochial schools, and they don’t know what a public school looks like, let alone a struggling one. And in the end, it develops for them a much greater sense of empathy. They realize that there are people out there for whom life is a real struggle. I think that’s important. I think the more we can engender empathy, the better this country will be.
Do you have any particular success stories of interactions between students and executive mentors?
Shuman: There was one volunteer in particular, he worked in television. We asked him if he would mentor one of our students who couldn’t read. And their relationship meant so much to my student that not only did he learn to read, he actually went to college, he majored in media arts, he just graduated and now he has his own little television show. …
I have one student who’s very interested in design, in fashion, and one of my board members owns a fashion company and offered him an internship. He is just thriving. There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t get an email from him telling me about how excited he is about what he’s learning.
What’s the most challenging part of your job, and how do you deal with that challenge?
Shuman: Well, honestly, the most challenging part, and I think most leaders of not-for-profits would say this, is fundraising. How do you deal with it? By just chipping away every day, and you do it because you believe so strongly. I don’t particularly like asking people for money, but I do it because I believe so strongly in the efficacy of our programs. …
It makes me nuts when I think how we’re wasting so much talent in this country. Because we look at kids and we judge a book by its cover — they’re wearing do-rags, their pants are hanging down. … There are so many of them that are really good kids, and all they need are some caring adults in their life. … We’re getting incredible results despite focusing on very high-risk, low-income kids. Last year, 97 percent of our kids graduated high school on time, versus 55 percent at their schools.
If you could paint any building in the world, what would it be?
Shuman: Maybe the Supreme Court, to show that there is beauty in diversity. I think it’s so important that we celebrate multiculturalism, and it is sort of foundational to America, but it’s not being celebrated the way it should be. I think too many people are afraid of that which is unfamiliar, and we’ve got to make the unfamiliar familiar. We’re living in a time when signs and symbols speak to people, so I think it would send a strong message if the Supreme Court were painted beautifully, in a very thoughtful mix of colors.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.