Creative Life in the Gateway Arts District
Here’s the story:
As Joe’s expanded from one tiny Mount Rainier, MD storefront in 1992 to the renovated and redeveloped direct mail facility it is now, increasing amounts of neighborhood kids came around looking for jobs. Founder Brooke Kidd saw the need, and thus the Theater Tech Program was born.
What started as a small training program to teach kids the basics of being a theater technician has grown into much more. Today the Theater Tech Program (TTP) is a youth workforce initiative for residents of Prince George’s County. It supports under-served high school seniors by providing academic tutoring, technical training, post-secondary exploration, and work opportunities. TTP participants receive a stipend for their active participation, as well as financial incentives for good performance in the program and in school. To qualify for the program, students must be Prince George’s County residents, live in households with very low incomes and face numerous critical barriers to their success. This year the outcomes of the program included 95% high school graduation with 70% entering college, 15% entering military and 10% entering the workforce.
These numbers are a happy ending to our story, but here’s the real story:
At the beginning of the year I was asked by the TTP Program Coordinator to supervise the new cohort of program participants while she ran out to pick up a kid who missed his ride. She introduced me and left me sitting in a circle of teenagers armed with a cheesy ice-breaker and some pencils. With full knowledge of what it meant to be eligible to participate in TTP, I was completely intimated by this group of kids who had likely faced more challenges than my life of relative privilege had granted me. Then something surprising happened… these kids who barely knew each other and perhaps only joined the program for the dangled-carrot-stipend began to do their best to make me, the adult, comfortable. They willingly participated in the cheesy icebreaker, they laughed at my awkward attempts at humor, they listened to me, smiled at me, and when the Program Coordinator got back, I was loath to leave.
Throughout this year I’ve had many opportunities to get to know the TTP participants. I worked with them on the night of Joe’s Art of Social Dance Gala and have attended numerous Art Lives Here events where they photographed, videoed, interviewed and documented the experience. However, it wasn’t until this past Thursday, at the Graduation Showcase, that I really saw the impact the program has had on the kids, or understood the impact they are having on the Gateway Arts District.
I got a little choked up during the video showcase and the participant and parent testimonials. Any newcomer to the TTP program would’ve been touched to hear a young man, who went through multiple foster homes, talk about the shock and joy of receiving his GED and his entering college. Just as moving was themother who spoke about how TTP staff were there for her son who only a few weeks earlier had been wheelchair bound due to a hit and run incident at the beginning of the year, as the boy stood up and slowly walked to the stage, a proud high school graduate. They also would’ve had a smile for the mother who stood, and voice shaking, expressed gratitude for the opportunities given to her son, an impeccably mannered young man who spoke of the plans he now has for the future thanks to TTP.
As someone who has interacted with these kids on a weekly basis, sometimes in passing, sometimes at Art Lives Here events, the real gift for me is seeing the spark of potential in each of them. For example, I’ll call him “Blue Headphones.” I’ve interacted with Blue Headphones on several occasions; he’s held the camera at Art Lives Here events, been an usher at Joe’s performances, helped with set up and clean up at Joe’s events… always courteous and polite, but always quiet, and always wearing blue headphones. Thanks to the showcase I saw during the “Storytelling” portion of the video, Blue Headphones stands up, and under a spotlight in front of a microphone, transforms from a hunched over, non-verbal teenager to a potent and powerful microphone master. He spoke clearly, articulately, beautifully about Tai Chi, meditation, and seeking an inner sense of self.
Then there’s Strong and Silent. Strong and Silent was highlighted in the program the “Most Outstanding Student” of the TTP Class of 2014. Having already seen this incredible young man’s photos from Art Lives Here events, I had no doubts of his talents. I had attempted to engage him on several occasions about what was next for his disturbingly poignant photo roman (titled “Stereotypes”) or to tell me more about what inspired his artistic eye. Again, I was met with polite and courteous monosyllabic responses. But I got my answer eventually. During the showcase as his photo roman played, I happened to turn as the theater door opened and a woman I recognized as his mother snuck in. As she looked up on the stage and saw her son’s piece playing, the most dazzling smile spread across her face. That’s when I remembered that more often than not, as young people we are creative not because we’re asked to, but because we’re allowed to be.
You may be thinking that this is all very nice but how does it pertain to the Gateway Arts District and what does it have to do with Art Lives Here?
This is how. Through TTP’s partnership with Art Lives Here, these young people have been to locations throughout the Gateway Arts District where they’ve had the opportunity to meet, work, and talk with artists; have seen visual and performing arts in action; have been a part of creative placemaking efforts; and have added–through their questions, their footage, their lenses–their voice to the Gateway Arts District.
When Joe’s Movement Emporium was born there was no Gateway Arts District and very few arts organizations. So much has changed since then. Gateway Arts District arts organizations are growing, evolving and finding voices of their own. And as they develop, the workforce development initiative will only grow with them. The arts are a tool of empowerment. Here in the Gateway Arts District, we’re not just about empowering artists; we empower the potential artist within everyone.