“See that soul brother over there?” asks artist and community activist James Greggs, pointing to a young street performer pounding bucket drums furiously on the National Mall. “Tourists see black kids doing that, and they think of us as entertainers.” Greggs, who runs the nonprofit Sign of the Times Cultural Workshop and Gallery in Northeast D.C., has been fighting that perception for years. He wants talented black kids to be seen as artists, not as sideshow curios.

But, Greggs laments, there aren’t a lot of organized outlets for kids to express their creativity. Since 1970, Sign of the Times has been engaging Ward 7 kids in public art projects, completing more than 30 street murals throughout D.C. The group’s latest mural project brought kids to one of the city’s most visible public spaces—the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue NW—to paint an enormous mural called the Multi-Cultural American Journey.

After less than three weeks of frantic painting, Greggs’ group will unveil the first phase of the mural this Saturday. Across the entire block, the mural is a collection of mostly abstract Native American, European, African, and Asian motifs. The Asian section, for example, includes a flying heron, a dragon, and Chinese characters. The European panels contain a series of quilt designs. Only two human images are featured on the mural; the intention is to keep the paintings as symbolic as possible, Greggs says.

Greggs speaks the language of empowerment in his work. Art, he says, “builds self-esteem” and is a “positive, educational activity” that “improves liberal arts” performance in college. The black community, he argues, encourages kids to “hang out on basketball courts” and stresses sports as the pinnacle of achievement. “A lot of black people wonder, ‘Why art? You can’t make any money doing that,’” he observes. But his projects, he counters, give drifting kids the discipline they need to stay in school and stay out of gangs. Signing kids up is not a problem, he says. “With inner-city kids,” Greggs says, “it’s like a competition.” Painting, like basketball, becomes an exercise in “one-upmanship,” he says.

The project also forces the artists to spend time in a part of the city they seldom see. “The people who live in the inner city do not come down here for all this free stuff,” Greggs avers. “We are exposing these kids to the city they live in.”—Guy Raz