News & Politics

2010 Washingtonian of the Year: Mary Brown

Turning young lives around through art

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

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Last year was the best and the worst of times for Mary Brown.

During the summer, the Northeast DC school building that houses her program, Life Pieces to Masterpieces, was vandalized. Computers were smashed, paint and art supplies were splattered on walls and floors, broken glass covered every surface.

“We came in, cleaned up, and made it through,” Brown says. Thanks to emergency support from funders and friends as well as Brown’s indomitable spirit, the program survived and thrived: “It turned out to be our best year ever.”

Most important to Brown was that the kids in the program wanted to find and attack the vandals—but didn’t. That was the biggest test, she says—and they passed with flying colors.

Brown and her ex-husband, artist Larry Quick, started Life Pieces 15 years ago with their friend Ben Johnson—who became the organization’s chief fundraiser—as an art program to keep kids in DC’s Ward 7 occupied so they’d stay out of trouble.

Life Pieces began as a program for preteens but now includes boys and young men ages 3 to 25. The older participants serve as leaders and big brothers to the younger ones.

Art remains essential—the boys paint on canvas and sew the painted pieces together to create striking works. But academics, character education, meditation, and mentoring now are crucial parts of the program.

“Young black men grow up in the belly of hell,” Brown says. “We teach them that obstacles can be opportunities.”

For the past five years, Life Pieces has had a 100-percent high-school graduation rate, Brown says, and the boys have all gone on to college or vocational training.

“I’ve yet to meet a boy who does not have a story to share about the goodness that radiates from Mary Brown,” says Tiffani Ross, volunteer coordinator at Life Pieces. “I’ve seen her open her arms to those many of us would turn our backs on. I’ve seen her open her arms to those who’ve turned their backs on themselves.”

Life Pieces encourages young men to focus on finding their purpose in life.

“If you have a sense of purpose, your power is limitless,” Brown says.

“I have stumbled into my larger purpose, and I love it.”

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