Artists Embrace the Art of Youth Work

Tim Burke
September 1, 1996

“I’ve spent six years in the choir. I rehearse twice a week and have risen to the top level of the concert choir. It has taught me self-motivation, to be responsible —— and it has taken me places. Look at me now — I'm in the White House!"

Amid applause, fifteen-year-old Sheronna Ragin handed the microphone back to Hillary Clinton and resumed her seat beneath a portrait of George Washington. Her multi-racial choir of inner-city youth from Chicago had entranced the audience in the grand East Room. The occasion was the launching of Coming Up Taller, a report that documents and celebrates the role that arts and humanities projects are playing in reaching young people at risk, and Sheronnaq and her pals were living proof.

Judy Weitz, Coming Up Taller editor and an alumna of the Casey Foundation's KidsCount project, explained the report. "We asked a lot of youth and child agencies to give us their best bets when it came to arts projects — who did they think of as models?" They came up with a list of some 600, which was whittled down to 218 by a committee of experienced youth and arts workers giving priority to projects which were long-lived, offered progression and had a youth development focus.

These are the projects profiled in Coming Up Taller. Big, small, generously funded or poorly funded, they range from the specialized to the multi-disciplinary, from midnight Shakespeare classes to training young offenders to be exhibition curators. The report gets its title from a statement by New York actor/writer Willy Reale and founder of The 52nd Street Project. “There is no way to fast forward and know how the kids will look back on this," Reale told Weitz when she visited his project. "But I have seen the joy in their eyes and have heard it in their voices and I have watched them take a bow and come up taller.”

Art for art's sake, as simple enrichment of human life without other justification, is certainly an idea endorsed in the report. But its main premise is that the arts are not just good, but useful too. Enlisting this vision of the arts in service of an "at risk" population is what drew such powerful backing for the report.

"The public affirmation that young people can get from the arts that they can rarely get elsewhere," said Weitz, "...pays off in terms of improved school attendance, academic achievement and more positive attitudes. These programs offer alternative ways of seeing and knowing. The arts and humanities also help address the crucial adolescent question of ‘Who am I?’ They allow emotional exploration."

According to the report, the task for public policy must be to bring together the right community of people to support artists in bureaucratic matters such as fundraising and administration, and to help youth workers access appropriate artists. The report stresses the need for technical assistance of this kind that will lead to training opportunities, staff mentorship programs and other exchanges and networking.

The three programs profiled here, although varying in emphasis on creativity and utility, all exemplify the artistic values supported by Coming Up Taller.

Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

The spacious, light-filled foyer of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG) is in sharp contrast to less attractive parts of inner-city Pittsburgh. Embroidered quilts, large stone and wood sculptures and elaborate potted plants beautify the exposed brickwork arches. There are no security guards and not a single bar crosses any of the windows. Not what an arts project for inner-city youth is presumed to look like.

"That's not by accident.," explains founder and executive director Bill Strickland, who just received a coveted MacArthur Foundation genius award. For Strickland, a thoroughgoing commitment to quality is bottom-line good practice. "The physical space is important—you can't do this work in a basement. This way we point out to kids every day what success looks like. And it's self-fulfilling. Funders see it and think, whatever they are doing, it must be good."

But MCG is no expensive mission to the inner city from the guilt-wracked affluent. It was founded by Strickland in 1968 in his own neighborhood. For 15 years, the project occupied two small terraced houses, one for ceramics and the other a photographic studio below where Strickland lived.

"We were getting successes," he explains. "Give people quality teachers, unlimited materials and first-class facilities and they will respond. Several young people went on to college and we got reports from schools that behavior was improving."

With a solid track record, Strickland was able to look to the corporate sector for funding in the '80s. The Guild's annual budget now stretches to $778,000, with funding from all levels of government and a wide range of companies and foundations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Jazz Network. The creation of an adult vocational training project has also broadened the funding base.

MCG offers free access to its facilities and now attracts 300 young people a week. At times, the scale simply beggars belief. The Guild, for instance, features jazz performers in a Living Masters concert series which is broadcast on National Public Radio. The performances are filmed and edited in the Guild's own studio. Using its own unique software, the Guild also produces "entertainment" packages providing concert footage, musical analysis and interviews with artists.

The artists turned youth workers are highly trained, successful artists who have sought out the MCG because they too want to be part of a success story that can transform lives. Assistant Executive Director Nancy Brown and Director of Student Development Bill
Winston help staff work with young people in areas such as life skills, self-esteem, public speaking and conflict resolution.

“That's what makes a big difference as an arts organization," says youth worker Brown. "We're not teaching photography in order to create great photographers — the issue is to develop skills to help youth maneuver within society."

Jay Ashby, director of special projects, presides over the concert series and the recording suite. He justifies the massive investment in the equipment partly on the grounds of the quality message — "when they come in here and see the flashing lights, they tune in and turn on" — but also because it's good business. Record companies now pay to film and record at the venue and media giant Time Warner is interested in buying into the entertainment packages.

Lonnie Graham, director of the photography program, shares the positive youth development perspective. For him, the important issue is cultivating skills such as reflection and planning, which are often quite new to young people who live only in the here and now, acting in response to things and not ideas.

"I want them to build a portfolio and to exhibit, but it's secondary," he explains. "I don't care if they are artists: I care that they are alive. What matters is that they use the experience they get here to do something for themselves and the community."

Project ABLE

As IBM shed 12,000 jobs in the Poughkeepsie area in the ‘90s, a rash of crime and other social problems followed.

Thus it was that the Mill Street Loft launched Project ABLE. The Loft, established in 1981 as a multi-arts educational center, has for 15 years run a variety of arts programs for children, youth and senior citizens. Project ABLE (Arts, Basic education, Life skills, Entrepreneurship) takes the broad artistic, educational and social aims of the Loft a step further. It focuses on motivating economically disadvantaged youth, predominantly African Americans with poor school records, by offering a program that rewards their artistic interests and abilities.

The program has four basic streams. The first, product development, links the group with professional artists to conceive, develop and manufacture craft work for sale. In the project's downtown shop, Hands On, the second stream pulls theory into practice. The third element involves acquiring carpentry skills at the project's workshop. Finally, a public art component undertakes projects that empower young people to contribute to revitalizing the community.

Executive Director Carole Wolf emphasized "kinesthetic" or contextualized learning over traditional academic approaches. Carpentry itself requires math, and in order to make and sell products, market research and product development become not abstract theories but processes to be mastered. In all situations staff also stress job-searching and job-keeping skills — basic matters such as team-work and conflict resolution.

"We sit around a table and talk about how we should treat people. About how we talk to each other," explains Glenn Futrell, who combines carpentry with youth work.” These are the kinds of things that take place in the workshop and they are very vital. The birdhouses that we make for a local bank are measurable outcomes, but the other stuff, that's the thing we're after."

A community mural prepared for the local Catherine Street Community Center is an example of how the project's elements come together. Young people conferred with senior citizens to determine the content of the mural. The work itself combined artistic expression with practical skills. And the completed mural transformed not only an unattractive building but the young people's standing in the community as well.

ABLE was also selected by the United States Department of Agriculture to design a poster promoting healthy eating habits which is now on display in every Food Stamp office across the nation.

Students at ABLE develop extensive portfolios of their artwork because, as Andrea Sherman, program developer, explains, “…this is the arts and people are quite skeptical about the practical value of what we do — so we have become very aware of the need to show what is achieved."

No one can pretend that Project ABLE can compensate for IBM downsizing or that its part-time shop will keep the mall owners awake at night. Nonetheless, it has employed some 75 young people who failed in the school system, and has helped others go on to find employment or attend college. Its real importance may lie in showing young people that they can have a second chance at succeeding.

The 52nd Street Project

Conveniently situated just off off-Broadway, the 52nd Street Project is now in its 15th year of bringing drama, or more precisely, the chance to succeed in drama, to disadvantaged young people from the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

There, young people receive intensive, personalized exposure to the creative processes of writing and acting, based on a close one-on-one relationship with an adult professional. A quick look down the list of volunteers shows the status the project has within the profession — Francis Ford Coppola, Spalding Gray and Francis McDormand are among those thanked in last year’s annual report.

The creative duos head off in the summer to the country or seaside to work on their pieces — "basically we borrow people's houses," explains Willy Reale, artistic director of the project. The program leads to performances in a borrowed New York theater to audiences of family and friends. "We always do one less night than we think we need so it always feels jammed — it feels like a hit," says Reale.

All the acting and writing programs have scope for progression and some young people stay with the project for six years. Some of the more experienced take a 10-week acting class dealing with the classics and exploring the nuts and bolts of stagecraft.

The youth work through the arts project is now extending its reach as a support service to its members. "Now that we've established a beachhead in their lives, we want to see how we can make a difference in their education," says Carol Ochs, the project's executive director. "We can't do it for them, but if there's someone looking over their shoulder, it might just help."

The project has a refreshing self-confidence in the face of the show-us- your-outcomes approach to youth work funding. Asked about the effect on crime reduction or high school graduation rates, Reale shrugs and says that they don't make that kind of evaluation: "If we did, our work would become about studying the work, not doing it. I don't know what would happen if we didn't turn up—in our hearts we believe we make a difference but we don't have the stats. We can get away with that because we do enough well-attended theater work."

For all its reluctance to talk up its achievements, the project is funded by the New York State Department of Youth Services and over 50 private and corporate funders, and draws immense support from theater folk. Talking to Reale who is — like Strickland — a MacArthur fellow, you can see how they do it. "I've worked with kids who’ve been trouble elsewhere and it's been a breeze," he enthuses.

“They really police themselves because the idea of success is so attractive to them. You see them expand over the week of the performances — you see them puff up when they know that a laugh is coming. And then you hear them going out into the theater lobby saying. That was mine, that laugh — I wrote that one.'"

“The whole program is designed so that if you do the work., you are almost guaranteed success. If there is a life lesson, it's that — and in many cases this may be their first real experience of success.”


Coming Up Taller, 1996. Edited by Judy Weitz, President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite 256, Washington, D.C. 20506. (202) 682-5409. Free.

Part of the Solution: Creative Alternatives for Youth, 1995. Edited by Laura L. Costello, National Assembly of State Art Agencies, 1010 Vermont Avenue, Suite 920, Washington, D.C. 20005. (202) 347-6352. $17.

The 52nd Street Project

Contact: Willy Reale, Executive Director

500 W. 52nd Street, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10019

(212) 233-5252

Mill Street Loft

Contact: Carole Wolf, Executive Director

20 Maple Street

Poughkeepsie, NY 12601

(914) 471-7505

Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild

Contact: Bill Strickland, Executive Director

1815 Metropolitan Guild

Pittsburgh, PA 15233

(412) 323-4000 - A website which features an exhibition of artwork developed by young people from MCG.


Artists Embrace the Art of Youth Work: Coming Up Taller's: Recipe for Success

Burke, Tim. "Artists Embrace the Art of Youth Work." Youth Today, September/October 1996, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.