Publicolor: Ruth Lande Shuman’s NGO Brings Color to Schools in NYC

Patricia Abaroa

A non-profit organization whose mission is to fight poverty and reduce the alarming school dropout rate in New York through design initiatives and painting parties.

Ruth Lande Shuman discovered her passion for color while completing her Master’s Degree in Industrial Design at New York’s Pratt University. The psychological relationship between color and people and the impact on their surroundings fascinated the award-winning designer. She noticed that some schools, particularly in the Harlem area, looked uninviting, even prison-like, with dreary colors. Lande Shuman soon realized what she needed to do: “I wanted to put paintbrushes in the hands of youths and teach them how to paint,” she tells

She put that idea into motion in 1996, when she founded the New York City — based Publicolor, a non-profit organization whose mission is to fight poverty by countering the alarming dropout rate in inner — city public schools. Publicolor seeks to engage disconnected youths in education through design-based programs, academic support, and teaching career-readiness skills.

Publicolor: Ruth Lande Shuman’s NGO Brings Color to Schools in NYC
First Lady Michelle Obama, Elisha Almonte, Ruth Lande Shuman.

The non-profit’s gateway program, Paint Club, recruits disadvantaged youths to paint the walls of their schools and neighborhood centers. Working in unison with teachers, parents, and the community, Paint Club members meet after school and on Saturdays to choose color combinations, prime and paint. The kids acquire good work habits and leadership skills while learning the value of collaboration and professionalism. Better attitudes, for both students and teachers, are attributed to new, vibrant settings. “Youths develop a sense of pride and ownership, changing how they perceive themselves. Publicolor increases their sense of self-confidence, and as a result, they’re more comfortable taking risks, which is what real learning is all about. Student attendance has improved at every school that has been painted, and I believe that showing up is three-quarters of the battle,” says Lande Shuman. “We realized that a high percentage of teachers reported having higher expectations of Paint Club kids after seeing them productively involved in a statewide initiative,” she adds.

In addition to Paint Club, Publicolor uses other programs to engage disadvantaged youths. COLOR (Community of Leaders Organizing Revitalization) is a multi-year apprenticeship offered to Paint Club graduates that aids them plan and prepare for the future. COLOR Club provides tutoring, career exposure, and life skills workshops. Next Steps, a college, and career prep program, offers weekly workshops, tutoring, and Saturday painting. Comprised of active Next Step Students, the Fresh Coat program provides job training, as students regularly touch up previously painted schools and community centers. Members also paint museums, gallery spaces, not-for-profit offices, and health clinics. The Summer Design Studio is a seven-week summer program that teaches literacy, math, and work experience as the youths are involved in painting neighborhood facilities. Publicolor also gives scholarships for community service to help cover college costs.

Publicolor: Ruth Lande Shuman’s NGO Brings Color to Schools in NYC
These are some of the students who got involved in Ruth Lande Shuman’s Publicolor, in New York.

Through an artistic idea, the non-profit has managed to attract students and increase their enthusiasm for their communities and learning services. In comparison to 47% of their peers, 89% of Publicolor students continued their education through post-secondary options.

On November 9th, 2014, Publicolor was honored with the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. First Lady Michelle Obama presented the award to Lande Shuman on behalf of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Publicolor was recognized as one of the country’s best creative youth development programs for using engagement in the arts and the humanities to increase academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment

Thanks to Publicolor, more than 255,900 low-income children are attending friendly and inviting schools. Lande Shuman’s concept, at its core, is based on a rather simple theory: “If you come into a struggling neighborhood and you treat everyone with respect and give them an opportunity to show, and reach their potential, they will. I really believe that.”  ■

© | 2019