The Backpack Project aims to collect 21,000 backpacks to represent young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working and not in school. 

A local youth coalition hopes to install an art display of 21,000 backpacks on the University of Arizona Mall during the wee hours of an October morning. 

If they can collect enough backpacks. 

The United Youth Leadership Council of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, along with the UA's Fostering Success program, aims to collect 21,000 backpacks — one to represent each young person between the ages of 16 and 24 who is not working or in school in Pima County, according to a report by United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona's county-wide Cradle to Career initiative.

"It's an art installation and a massive donation drive," says Mercedez Marquez, a lead on this project and the community arts youth coordinator and AmeriCorps State member with United Way. "All the backpacks will be donated to organizations that work with opportunity youth." 

The phrase "opportunity youth" refers to those 16-24-year-olds not in school and not working — often called "at-risk" youth. 

Using "opportunity youth" instead of "at-risk" is another part of the Backpack Project.

"It's empowering my fellow peers to know that they can rise above the stigma, and they can be more than a label and have their own pathway," Marquez, 21, says.

Developing an art installation on the UA campus grew out of a desire to humanize that population of young people. 

Marquez worked with Allison Field Bell, the organization's Youth on the Rise coordinator, to develop how a project like that would take shape.

"How can we mobilize young people in this county to really bring this conversation to light and make it more than just numbers?" Field Bell says of the brainstorming process. "The conversation about opportunity youth started as a business conversation, like how much does a disconnected young person cost a taxpayer? ... But we felt like there was more to a human being than how much they're costing a taxpayer, especially young people who are so brilliant and have so much to bring to the table." 

The visionaries who will transform thousands of backpacks into an art installation come from this population, including members of the United Youth Leadership Council, the Metro Goodwill Youth Program and UA's Fostering Success program.  

Backpacks will give a visual to the statistic. 

"Backpacks hold more than school supplies," Marquez says. "I think that walking into a class without a backpack, for me, which is the only experience I can really speak on, there was a lack of confidence, a lack of assurance that this year might be different, might be good." 

She adds that a backpack can hold clothing, food and medication. For these young people who may experience homelessness, foster care, addiction and mental illness, among other issues, a backpack is "a sense of privacy and a sense of security." 

The installation will debut on the UA Mall on Wednesday, Oct. 31, and then portions of the artwork may appear in other local museums, says Ashley Janicki, the opportunity youth change network facilitator for United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. 

The backpacks will then go to local organizations that work with these young people. If your organization is interested in distributing backpacks, email thebackpackproject@unitedwaytucson.org

Starting Tuesday, Sept. 4, anyone can donate new or gently-used backpacks to the project at any Vantage West Credit Union location. Prior to that, you can take your donations to 330 N. Commerce Park Loop, Suite 200. You can also donate money toward the backpack drive or volunteer at unitedwaytucson.org/backpackproject

"I think backpacks can also hold understanding," Marquez says. "When you see 21,000, it's different as a visual than in black and white when you see it on paper. There's more understanding that these are people who have stepped away from a sturdy pathway, but also an understanding that this group of people is capable, as well."