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Paint Me Like I Am
By Shirkey Warthen
Why don’t you paint me
Like I am?
Paint me light brown caramel
Five foot ten
Paint me with a different brush.
Paint me zooming, going fast
‘Cause I’m in a rush
And my ashy knuckles
Are all worn out
Paint me everlasting.
Paint me the real deal,
Not drawn out.
Paint me in my real authentic self
Somewhere in southwest
Somewhere on 54th Street
With all the fellas, all the chicks
Chillin’ & partying in the streets
Where we need 2 decrease
The violence and increase the peace.
Paint me without my shout out ways.
That were supposed to be left behind
In my shout out days.
Paint me so my Mom notices me
And the haters don’t.
Paint me with nice colors,
But most of all
Paint me Black
Because I love being colored.
If you drive by 5550 Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, you will see a newly installed mural—a mosaic of colors that frame a black figure. On September 17, 2013, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program held a dedication for “Paint Me Like I Am,” its most recent mural dedicated to Shirkey Warthen, a passionate and dedicated Youth Advocate at the Juvenile Law Center who was shot and killed on April 17, 2012.
Shirkey joined the Juveniles for Justice Program after spending two years in placement at a youth criminal facility when he was 14. According to the Juvenile Law Center’s executive director Robert Schwartz, “Shirkey saw his juvenile justice system involvement as an opportunity to change not only his life, but the lives of other young people who faced similar circumstances.”
During his time at Juveniles for Justice, Shirkey worked with his peers to create a legislative campaign to ensure staff in detention facilities were not harming youth. He travelled to Washington, D.C to meet with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill to advocate for this important cause, urging them to pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that was then up for reauthorization. Back at the Justice Law Center, Shirkey recruited new Juveniles for Justice members, led community meetings, and advocated for change to members of the Philadelphia School Board, city government, Philadelphia Police, and Department of Human Services. According to Juvenile Law Center’s Staff Attorney Riya Shah, “He (Shirkey) knew he was speaking on behalf of the thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system and he made sure that his voice was heard.”
Shirkey was a role model for his fellow youth advocates and for those in his community. As Shah explains, “He watched as many people in his life were pulled back into the juvenile or criminal justice system. But he was determined to stay on track and complete his goals.” Prior to his tragic passing, Shirkey had recently completed his GED, gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, and found a job at the Logan steel plant. “With each advancement he made, he was always reaching back to pull the next person forward,” offers Shah.
Shirkey’s tragic passing left behind his mother, daughter, fiancée, nine brothers and sisters, and 14 nephews and nieces. Reflecting on his legacy at Shirkey’s memorial service in 2012, Shah poignantly explained,
“His resilience and passion for making a difference influenced not only his peers but also me and the rest of our staff. In our work, we constantly see young people who are defeated by broken systems. But Shirkey wasn’t defeated. He was inspired by the broken system – inspired to make it better. He didn’t just want to change his own life; he wanted to change the lives of others. He didn’t just want to better himself; he wanted to better his community.”
Perhaps Shirkey’s greatest legacy is captured in the third stanza of his poem “Paint Me Like I Am,” now immortalized in the mural watching over his old neighborhood, “Paint me in my real authentic self/Somewhere in the southwest/Somewhere on 54th Street/With all the fellas, all the chicks/Chillin’ & partying in the streets/Where we need 2 decrease/The violence and increase the peace.”
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