NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — The East End of Newport News is often in the news for the wrong reason. But there are some dedicated volunteers trying to change an image that is often tarnished by violent crime, and they are doing it through the creative process.

Asa Jackson, who sits on the Virginia Commission For the Arts, raises his voice to get the attention of a roomful of teens.

“We’re going to be working on a project called the icon project.”

Icons are things worthy of honor, maybe a past life that shaped the present. People such as W. Hale Thompson, an attorney who integrated the libraries of Newport News. Jackson created a large image of the beloved civil rights activist, and he showed his handiwork to his students just a few blocks from his classroom introduction. They listened to Jackson’s enthusiasm for Thompson’s work during the era of Jim Crow.

“So if it wasn’t for people like this who are brave and took steps when nobody else wanted to or could, we might be in those same circumstances today.”

Jackson is teaching history through his art. His work depicting Thompson stands on Jefferson Avenue and 25th Street, just blocks from where Jackson grew up.

“Before I was 30, me and my brother had lost over three dozen close personal friends, some best friends to gun violence within this neighborhood right here.”

Jackson laments the fate of young lives on the streets.

“Dealing with police and violence and drugs. It’s pressure.”

But Jackson is looking to help the next generation paint a different future, with the help of the Boys and Girls Club of the Virginia Peninsula, and the non-profit Phoenix Reborn. It is through this appreciation of the past, that Jackson hopes will inspire children. Or maybe it’s someone in the here and now. For a young teen, Kalilah Forest, it’s Missy Elliot. But past icons can still take us to new places.

“And if you don’t have a direction to walk in, you might not get to a destination. You gotta have something that you’re dedicated to. You gotta have something that yokes you.”

So these young minds are developing their creative vision by painting the icons of their lives. Asa Jackson believes the lessons of the past combined with a vision of the future is a powerful mix for all ages.