Niagara University’s Justice Houses, located in the historic and picturesque Varsity Village at the center of campus, were established to empower students interested in social justice, the environment, or legal advocacy to engage in projects and activities across Niagara’s campus and beyond.
Tori Egleston, a senior social work major from East Amherst, N.Y., is one of the students who lived in those houses. And her experience in that living-learning environment encouraged her to lead a project that will transform the area behind Timon Hall into an outdoor, meditative space dedicated to the struggle for social justice.
“My idea is to create a peace garden,” she said. “A safe and tranquil area that celebrates diversity. This student-led art initiative will be filled with social justice-themed murals, greenery, ideally a small community library, and places to sit, study, and relax.”
Three murals, designed by Tori with input from BIPOC students and inspired by similar projects she researched online, depict three visions of peace. On the left, a painting of the tree of peace, situated among brightly colored hills, water, and the sun, recognizes the ancestral homelands of the Indigenous Nations which occupied the area on which Niagara University is located and honors the relationship between the Nations and their aboriginal territory.
“I am very pleased that Niagara University will dedicate a mural to honor the relationship the Seneca Nation and the Haudenosaunee Nations have with the lands the university sits,” said Rory Wheeler, ’21. “For so long, Indigenous Nations and peoples have been forgotten. But, through overwhelming odds, we have persevered, relying on our culture, traditions, language, and the resilience of our ancestors. With this mural, we start a new chapter of honoring the original stewards of these lands and, in keeping with our Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, we will leave a lasting legacy for the next seven generations.”
On the right, a tribute to Black Lives Matter features a woman of color standing with the symbol of the fist against a cityscape and a sun. The word “Rise” anchors the artwork.
“Being black or brown in this world places an enormous burden on you as soon as you come in,” said Matthew McKenzie, a senior political science/international studies major from Niagara Falls, N.Y. “This mural is created to acknowledge the pain and strife of black and brown people everywhere. Through this all, there is support, and the change is on the horizon, rising like the sun.”
A multicolored dove with a quote by Jane Addams, a pioneer American settlement activist/reformer and leader in women's suffrage and world peace, is the centerpiece of the garden.
“Doves bring the message of peace and hope,” Tori said. “They are a reminder to find serenity among all things and bring forth that peaceful nature with others, as well. Jane Addams was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a well-respected social worker, an activist, and much more. In connection to this mural, she said it best when she said ‘True peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.’ I feel that her words tie the art together beautifully. The dove here can be a visual representation of the connection between justice and peace. When people treat all others with respect, kindness, and stand up for what is right, peace will follow—far, wide, and bright with color.”
With the assistance of the Rev. Aidan Rooney, C.M., vice president for mission integration, Tori was able to get the approvals she needed. Two other Justice House residents, Maren Geiger and Isabella Aiu, both senior political science majors, are helping her paint the murals. Tori anticipates completing the work by the time classes start in the fall, and adding benches, flowers, and a lending library with books on social justice that individuals can read and share.
“It is critical that, as a campus, there be support for those who have and are still experiencing oppression, discrimination, and injustice,” Tori said, noting that this project was the “perfect opportunity for me to share art and joy and peace and justice. I feel like it’s super important to have this visual representation on campus so that more students feel a sense of comfort in the art that I’m putting up on the wall.”