Duolingo is making a statement through the universal language of art.

In 2019, the world’s most popular language-learning platform and the most downloaded education app put out a global call for an artist to paint a mural on its headquarters at 5900 Penn Ave. in East Liberty.

Detroit-based artist Ann Lewis was chosen from 160 applicants. Her piece, “To Be Human,” was inspired by neighborhood residents, area activists and students at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. Lewis’s geometric line art forms the words “we rise” on one side of the building and “together” on another. The mural’s colors and message reflect the student body’s ethos, creative collage-making and discussions centered on their perspective of community.

Screenshot from filmmaker Chris Ivey’s upcoming documentary about the project.

To celebrate the mural’s completion on October 21, Duolingo is pledging $150,000 to start an initiative that will create public artwork throughout Pittsburgh and support local artists and organizations over the next three years. Additionally, filmmaker Chris Ivey is creating a documentary about the project (see a preview of the film below).

“Duolingo is proudly founded and based in Pittsburgh. This support for the arts is part of our commitment to being a good neighbor in our community,” says Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo. “We live and work here and want to give back directly to our community. Public art is something that can benefit everyone who lives here. Our goal is to make sure that our growth and success as a business built in Pittsburgh also gives back to this city that we love.”

The first two grants will go to Natiq Jalil and Alison Zapata to support the creation of a new mural in East Liberty. In 2004, Zapata assisted artist Jordan Monahan with a mural on the same building, which was then occupied by a different tenant.

The 8,500-square-foot work, “Lend Me Your Ears,” was immediately embraced by the East Liberty community. It featured images of local boys on their bicycles, a girl blowing bubbles, television test patterns, flowers and birds. It was The Sprout Fund’s largest community mural.

Much to the public’s dismay, the landlord painted over the artwork in 2015 to install second-floor windows and make the structure more attractive to prospective tenants. Duolingo didn’t move in until 2016, but many people blamed the company for the mural’s removal.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

Duolingo didn’t just want to beautify their headquarters, they wanted to start a dialogue with the community around it. Sam Dalsimer, the company’s head of public relations, says it’s been an incredibly interesting process.

“It’s taught me a lot about how meaningful public art is,” Dalsimer says. “Hearing different opinions about what the old mural meant to them and what the new mural means to them now. We look at it as a new beginning, a fresh start with the East Liberty community.”

Lewis says it’s a tribute to the students and residents who helped make it happen.

“This wall has a complex history and I am very grateful that the mural helped reestablish a dialogue between Duolingo and the community,” she says. “Public art has the power to build bridges through creativity, birth conversations from silence and generate positive change. I’m excited to see what comes next.”