El Puente: Building a Bridge from the Arts to Community

Julee Newberger
August 23, 1999

Graffiti-covered and often traffic-jammed, the Williamsburg Bridge stretches from an ethnically segmented Brooklyn community to a glittering Manhattan skyline. Latinos, Dominicans, Mexicans, Poles, Hasidim, and other ethnic groups make up the Williamsburg community—one that has been plagued by gang violence, environmental deterioration, and poverty throughout its history.

One might think that kids in Williamsburg look to that rattling steel bridge as an escape to a better life. But only blocks from the bridge, kids at El Puente community center and El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice are learning that they have the power to reinvent their Brooklyn community. Every day, in a transformed church on South Fourth Street, El Puente founders Luis Garden Acosta and Frances Lucerna are proving that the key to raising kids who will grow up to be healthy, successful citizens of the world is to appeal to their culture, and teach them everything—from algebra to self-expression—through the arts.

El Puente (Spanish for "the bridge") is the first high school for human rights in the country. "We wanted to open a school that reflected our practice of youth development, and our commitment to nurturing developing leaders," Acosta says. A certified New York City public high school, El Puente boasts a high rate of graduates who go on to college, students who gravitate towards the building on weekends and after school for supervised activities, and a reputation for taking action in its Williamsburg community. This year, the Board of Education asked El Puente to provide the after-school component of a nearby Beacon program—one of New York City's school-based community centers.

"The reason we are successful is because we focused on community and youth development," Acosta says. El Puente's facilitators, or teachers, subscribe to the belief that art is the process through which students develop—and through which they can explore the environment, public health, economic development, and other issues that affect their lives. Says Jackie Chang, who works in arts programming, "Kids need to explore global issues by looking locally."

Outside the doors of El Puente, students and their families face a variety of threats to their community. Rezoning efforts by the city will create opportunities to build higher-priced housing—and drive out the current residents. High levels of lead in the community, oil slicks, and an unprecedented number of garbage terminals make Williamsburg what Acosta refers to as "New York's toxic community."

With the community, El Puente led an eight-year battle to defeat a proposal to install a garbage incinerator in Brooklyn's nearby Navy Yard. For the first time, Williamsburg's diverse ethnic populations joined together to protest another poison to their environment. Residents met at the El Puente community center to organize. Students built a 10-foot-high papier-mach? "incinerator monster" to symbolize the threat. The incinerator monster won the attention of The New York Times, which twice ran a picture of El Puente students and Williamsburg residents toting the art project along as they marched for Williamsburg's environment.

A Project-Based Curriculum
Each year, El Puente design teams (composed of a facilitator, an artist, a community organizer, an environmentalist, and others) create a year-long project that serves as the core of the curriculum. Last year's topic was the garment industry. Students culminated their project with a show across the street from El Puente in the Continental Army Park that was free to students, families, and community members. But the rap, dance, and fashion show wasn't just for fun. It explored issues from the injustices of sweat shops to the pressure for kids to look and dress like fashion models. The performance integrated work from different courses, allowing students to use the arts as a vehicle to present the lessons they had learned.

The project hit close to home for students, many of whose parents work in the garment industry. "This was not just an academic study, but part of our living in this community," Lucerna says.

The previous year, students explored the history of sugar—from the Domino sugar factory that is part of Brooklyn's landscape, to the traditions of colonialism and slavery tied to its rise as a precious commodity. The sugar project, brainchild of local artist Jennifer Monson, incorporated music, dance, videography, and global studies. It also helped Williamsburg's Caribbean community reflect on and celebrate its history.

The annual projects provide the perfect venue for integrated curriculum, and an opportunity for students to use the arts to explore the relevance of issues within their own lives. The presentations demonstrate that students have not only internalized the facts, but they are showing the world how these facts pertain to them. According to Acosta, the projects also build a bridge from course work to students' cultural heritage. At El Puente, young people learn to see themselves and their community in the context of global economic, social, and environmental issues. "The arts provide the glue, the attraction, and the validator," he says.

So what do Acosta and Lucerna say to critics who believe the students should be learning traditional topics, such as how a bill becomes a law?

"They are," Acosta says. "But they're learning it in a way that they'll never forget."

Building a Bridge
Acosta founded El Puente Community Center in 1981, shortly after a period of gang violence in which 48 young people were killed in the community. Hollywood movies, TV shows, and reports depicted Williamsburg, along with East L.A., as gang capitals of the country. At the time, Acosta served as associate executive director of Brooklyn's Greenpoint Hospital. "I knew that we could try many approaches, use the best medical techniques, but we could do nothing to slow down the killing of youths," Acosta says.

Acosta chose to look at the larger issue: a breakdown in the city's health care and education system. The answer was not band-aid fixes applied by isolated social service agencies. No public health service or venture could have intervened successfully at that point. "I knew we had to inspire people to take on leadership roles in the community," Acosta says.

No stranger to activism, Acosta had been a member of the Young Lords during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This Latino activist group demonstrated against police brutality and developed community initiatives involving preventive medicine, soup kitchens, clothing drives, and cultural workshops. Although he had gone on to study at Harvard University, Acosta still considered Williamsburg his home.

During the gang warfare, a horde of social service providers entered the community with what Acosta calls "a mantra of dysfunction." They labeled kids in the community as "at-risk" and talked of problem-solving. But Acosta feared that the onslaught of service providers addressing individual needs served only to excuse the community's inability to come together for its young people. Did only social workers and health care providers care about youth?

"Nobody wants to be called at-risk," Acosta says. "We needed to serve kids not on the basis of their potential as criminals and pregnant teens, but who they are as people."

How could they diffuse the gangs and stop the killings that plagued their neighborhood? Acosta believed that the answer was to appeal to young people through the arts and a sense of community. "We needed to build an indigenous infrastructure," he says. "We needed to look at youth development in a holistic way."

When Passion Meets Purpose
In 1981, Frances Lucerna joined the El Puente development team, a group of organizers committed to the growth of young people in "mind, body, and spirit" (three words that El Puente students now look at each day, painted on banners hanging from the school's cathedral ceiling). Lucerna, Acosta, and Gino Maldonado, another El Puente co-founder, had attended church together as young people in Williamsburg.

The church, along with dance, had empowered Lucerna to believe that she would surpass the limits imposed on her as a young woman growing up in Brooklyn (adults told her she could be a secretary, a mother, or both). The arts allowed her to find a place within herself where passion met purpose. "All of a sudden," Lucerna says, "there was a place in the world for me."

Lucerna became a professional dancer, returning to Williamsburg in 1981 to convalesce after a hip injury. There, she became the director for school-age at a child care center. At the request of the children, she began to teach dance. Watching the young women develop self-esteem and determination through dance reaffirmed her belief that the arts encourage young people to see themselves in a powerful and limitless way. The experience moved her to create her own arts organization for youth.

For Lucerna, passion and purpose met once again through her work at El Puente.

Together with the development team, Lucerna brainstormed about using art as a catalyst for experiential learning. The methodology would reflect that of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator known for the unprecedented success of his literacy campaigns in poverty-stricken areas of northeast Brazil. Freire's technique incorporates words and ideas directly related to the lives of people, teaching them to read and write in the context of their everyday lives.

"Too many kids growing up don't have the opportunity to develop a rich inner life, and they don't have mentors," Lucerna says. The community center, with its after-school, social services, and health care facilities, helped to provide both for Williamsburg kids for 12 years. In 1993, El Puente's success inspired the founders to expand into a high school offering professional preparation and skills building.

A New York City school reform initiative gave El Puente the opportunity to create a high school curriculum steeped in youth and community development, using arts as the core. That which was relevant and meaningful in the lives of Williamsburg kids would be inextricable from the learning experience.

El Puente graduates its third class in 1998. "Kids came because they wanted to be something," Lucerna says, "not because they were on drugs or committing crimes."

Steps for Success
Williamsburg needed more than kids who could sing and dance. It needed more than kids who got A's in global studies. The community needed kids with a vision of what could and what should be, and the belief in themselves as leaders—a vision they acquired through arts-centered learning.

The first step, according to Lucerna, in creating a program like El Puente—a process which is now occurring in other cities around the country—is finding "the champions who've made the commitment to invest their life's energy in the place where they live." Each person brings their own resources to the table. People must feel that they are supported; no one should be caught in the struggle alone.

Second, Lucerna says, you must examine the political and social systems already existing within the community. Once you understand the environment, you can invite community grass-roots organizations to the table and begin the strategic process of vision-making. "You transform your vision into a community vision," Lucerna says.

The El Puente development team found the abandoned church building on South Fourth Street that became the site of its community center, and later its high school. They invested all their own sweat equity. "Once you get started," Lucerna says, "information and resources become available to you."

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice began as a New Vision School, part of an initiative to reform New York City public schools. In partnership with the Board of Education, El Puente opened as one of 16 schools planned by the community from the ground up.

Throughout its history, funding has come from a variety of sources—city, state, federal, and private. Full-time staff members spend time scouting collaborations and partnerships with other community groups. Flexibility is required to keep the program in constant forward motion, along with willingness to weather the vicissitudes of the funding environment.

Today, Lucerna finds it "bizarre" to think of herself as a high school principal, grappling with the bureaucracy and proverbial red tape of the New York City Board of Education. It is not an uncommon feeling among the eclectic staff, which includes assistant principal Alfa Anderson, who sang with the 70s soul band Le Chic, known for the hit song, "The Freak." At El Puente, artists become administrators, and administrators become artists. "The message to young people," Lucerna says, "is that life is really limitless, and you set your own boundaries."

Measures of Success
Lucerna talks of the pressure in New York City to do away with RCTs-multi-subject exams required for high school graduation in New York City. The RCTs represent an alternative to New York State Regents Exams, which students take in order to receive a more prestigious Regents Diploma. Doing away with the RCTs would force more students to take the Regents exams. Would it raise graduation standards? Yes. But, according to Lucerna and other educators, it would also give students less of an opportunity for demonstrating their mastery of skills. Not all competent students, after all, do well on standardized tests.

Together with the New York City Consortium for Performance Based Assessment Tasks, El Puente has put together a package of performance-based graduation tests for review by the New York City Board of Education. The consortium includes the New Visions Schools, the Center for Collaborative Education, and organizations that believe that alternative assessment techniques better measure students' capacities to achieve.

The proposal, Lucerna argues, is even more rigorous than the standardized tests-but it allows students to demonstrate mastery through a body of work which they produce over an extended period of time.

Currently, El Puente uses a portfolio method in addition to RCTs and Regents Exams to evaluate students' success. Students write, research, perform, and work with groups to demonstrate different levels of competency. Lucerna hopes the Board of Education will approve the new assessment package this year.

High school graduation itself is a community event in which elders bestow sashes on graduating seniors. The color of the sashes is chosen by an El Puente staff member based on the overall personality of the class. The tradition helps to create a community structure that celebrates its young people's rites of passage. Says Lucerna, "It's another way in which living and learning is intertwined."

Corridor of Possibility
While some economic and social conditions have improved since the El Puente community center opened its doors twelve years ago, many still remain dire. Some immigrants arrive, having been professionals in their own country, and are forced to take minimum-wage jobs. Drugs are still prevalent, although the gang problem has diffused. Acosta says proudly that Williamsburg's police precinct is the only one in New York City to report no homicides this year.

Once, changes in the community occurred without Williamsburg residents at the table. Through El Puente community center and the Academy for Peace and Justice, the community has found a voice. Students testify against rezoning regulations; residents seek assistance for the battles they face from day to day. Says volunteer Ingrid Matias, "The community knows if they need help with anything, El Puente is there."

Just a few blocks from El Puente, on the north side of Williamsburg, many artists are moving in, perhaps inspired by a nearby community that embraces its culture. Yet higher-priced real estate threatens to displace residents who have built this community. Says Lucerna, "Issues of justice are life and death for us here."

Several blocks away from El Puente, still in view of the Williamsburg Bridge, stands a brick building with crashed-in windows that El Puente hopes to make its home someday. A possible partnership with the Board of Education would make El Puente the first community-based organization to own its own public school building. The remodeled church on South Fourth Street will serve as a presenting space for performances by students and resident companies.

From her desk on the second floor of the transformed church, Lucerna refers to distance between El Puente's current residence and the proposed site as the "corridor of possibility." The new building could accommodate a gym, and far more than the 130 high school students.

But some students worry that a larger space will detract from the "family" feel. Evelyn Hernandez, 17, would recommend that freshman start out in the current building, which fosters a sense of closeness within its walls. A senior at El Puente, Hernandez talks about staying late to work on projects, knowing that facilitators will see that she gets home safely to Park Slope. "People think that good education is just about books," Hernandez says, "but you have to learn about yourself."

Through the glass windows of the principal's office, Lucerna watches students walk purposefully between the school's six classrooms, stopping to chat. No bells ring to announce the beginning of classes, but students seem to know intuitively when to empty the common areas. Banners hang from the walls: Attack poverty, not people; Green and clean neighborhood; No more garbage. In a mural left behind from a time when the building served as a place of worship, angels sing.

El Puente
211 South 4th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Tel: 718-387-0404
Fax: 718-387-6816