A picture frame full of meaning: Three local youths pen winning essay urging ‘blank slate’ to hang in Healey’s office

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2023 4:24 PM

HOLYOKE — A tradition calls for the Massachusetts governor to hang a framed portrait of a predecessor over the fireplace in the governor’s ceremonial office at the State House, joining the numerous paintings, mostly of white men, lining the halls, offices and common areas of the Beacon Hill building.

While the portrait is an inspiration for the current officeholder to capture the ideals and spirit of someone who previously led the commonwealth, for two eighth graders at the Holyoke Community Charter School and a junior at Amherst Regional High School, a better idea is to leave the gold frame empty, instead making the portrait a sort of blank slate for the governor to deliver an agenda for all Massachusetts residents.

Putting their thoughts into a 600-word essay, “Inspiring Change and Dangerous Hope: Unequal Representation in the Commonwealth” the three students, Adniley Velez of West Springfield, Ja’liyah Santiago of Springfield and Julian Hynes of Amherst, were selected as winners of the statewide portrait essay contest, getting to meet Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kimberley Driscoll at a recent event at which the empty frame was unveiled.

“Our main goal was to say that our government is changing and that it’s adapting to the modern life we have now,” Velez said. “A lot of people are not being represented in communities and the country as a whole.”

“We felt something about equal representation is important, at the local level, the state level and the national level,” Hynes said. 

“It opened a lot of people’s minds and made people think,” Santiago said of the concept of leaving the frame empty.

In their piece, Hynes, Santiago and Velez wrote, “Our proposal is to break from tradition, to hang nothing but an empty frame to remind you that there will be large groups of people that remain underrepresented, voiceless, and invisible. Look forward not back for your inspiration. Look at the young, the poor, the people of color, and the ones who need the most help. Look at the empty frame and then around the table and ask, ‘Who is not represented here?’ Then, break free from the symbolic fetters that bind you and invite them.”

Being invited to Boston for the unveiling, Santiago said that the day began with Driscoll recognizing the only previous woman to serve as governor, Jane Swift, who was present for her portrait to be displayed at the State House. That led to applause from those gathered.

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Then, when Healey announced the empty frame, there were some audible gasps, Santiago said. But once the teens had an opportunity to explain their thought process, there was cheering and clapping, and congratulations for thinking outside the box.

“She said it was inspiring, that others could be seated where I am, she said, and that she’s ready for change,” Velez said.

Healey offered her thoughts. “The State House is the People’s House — and symbols matter,” she said. “I was inspired by this submission from Julian, Ja’liyah and Adniley, who considered how they themselves could be the face of leadership in our state.”

“This frame serves as a reminder of those who aren't always reflected or heard in the halls of power,” Healey said. “When people come into this office, I want them to envision themselves in that frame. For me, it will remind me of the young people who are looking to our administration right now, and of our commitment to ensuring that all voices are heard.”

On Friday, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia was expected to be at the charter school to present a citation to Santiago and Velez.

School Principal Sonia Correa Pope said the recognition by Healey has also been celebrated by the more than 700 students and faculty and staff at the K-8 school.  “We’re proud of them for coming up with such an innovative idea,” Pope said.

The essay originated as part of an eighth grade civics project at the school.

Though Hynes didn’t know the girls at the Holyoke school, his father, Robert Riddles, serves as the academic quality controller there, and introduced him for the collaboration.

“That’s when we met with Julian and it all fell together,” Velez said, observing that they come from different backgrounds, but share a vision for seeing change happen.

They wanted their essay to answer the questions whether identity matters more than policy, or is policy driven by identity, and is different identity being excluded?

“We did this as a team to show civic engagement among youth,” Hynes said. 

“We all put out heart and soul into this essay,” Santiago said. 

Santiago said about a month of research got the submission ready for a Jan. 27 deadline. Part of that included looking into what approach past governors had done with the portrait, learning that Deval Patrick, for instance, had hung a portrait of John Andrew, an abolitionist.

“We didn’t find anyone portraying of everyday people,” Hynes said. 

The essay notes that  no governor has been of Latino or Asian background and that underrepresentation means that some people are voiceless and invisible, such as the young and poor.

When the trio found out that they had won the contest, Velez said she immediately got in touch with Santiago.

“I celebrated and called Ja’liyah and said, “Oh my God,” Velez recalled, adding that an uncle cried in congratulating her.  “It’s been constant praise.”

Santiago said friends of her family have reached out. “We knew our essay was unique,” Santiago said. “How many people would think of an empty frame?”

Hynes said he got 45 emails from friends and others praising his work.

The day in Boston is one they will always remember. “It was mind-blowing to meet the governor, an amazing experience,” Santiago said.

“She was fun and funny, and she was so polite,” Velez said.

Hynes, who for a few years has been speaking to the Amherst Town Council on a range of topics, said government can be intimidating for young people, but he also found Healey to be courteous and welcoming to the teens. “She was very approachable,” Hynes said.

Velez was also impressed by what she saw at the State House. “It’s a gorgeous place,” Velez said.

None of the students, despite the essay, see themselves getting into politics. Hynes, who is closest to graduating, said he may be interested in working in municipal government after college.

Both Santiago and Velez will be leaving the charter school. Santiago, who is interested in forsensic science, may head to Springfield Central High School next, while Velez, whose dream is to enroll at Deerfield Academy, said she would like to be an attorney. 

While there was no money awarded from the contest, that doesn’t matter.

“This is about putting a dent in history and changing people’s minds,” Hynes said.

“The prize is the change we’re creating,” Velez said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. ]]>