The Baltimore Design School sits nestled in the heart of Greenmount West, a neighborhood in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Down the street from the City Arts Building and across from Area 405, young people in the Baltimore Design School are surrounded by a growing cultural community of low, middle and high income families, artists, commuters and laborers.
A program that is helping to expand the cultural impact of youth in the neighborhood is the Youth Learning Lab of Education and Applied Design (Y-LLEAD) created by designer and activist, Melissa Moore. A member of the Artists Within coalition, Y-LLEAD is a youth led design program that uses architecture, product and graphic design as a tool for social justice and self-actualization.
On a winter visit to Y-LLEAD’s after school program in the Baltimore Neighborhood Design School, two youth participants, Kirsten German (19), and Monica Dickens (13), spoke of having an opportunity few youth in Baltimore are given – the chance to think outside of the box.
When my mother told me about the chance to become involved in graphic design and architecture, I thought, I’d never done it before but why not take a chance? It’s like a very versatile skill- designing. You can do anything. I haven’t had a lot of chances to just…do what I want.
Kirsten’s quiet statement was seconded by Monica, who spoke of Y-LLEAD as her chance to have her ideas taken seriously.
I became involved this summer because it was different. You get to say your ideas and then, try them out.
Y-LLEAD’s participants describe their experience as a chance to move away from after school programming which regularly involves top down instruction. Instead, hands on design opportunities are helping them grapple with big ideas and turn them into practical objects.
It’s a very enlightening experience. It takes you out of your comfort zone – you don’t have anybody dictating what is right or wrong. It’s like you are given a blank canvas you can mark on all you want. It’s something new to me, not having direction.
The blank canvas framework also allows them to think about obstacles as opportunities.
We get to share ideas. The objects we make don’t always end up being used for their original intent. We have to learn how to work with each other and be flexible. You can share your ideas openly. When we run into a problem, it’s like what you think- just try it out. It’s like the way the real world is- you don’t get directions, you just stumble through it.
Not only are Y-LLEAD participants learning how to turn challenges into opportunities, they are also learning how to be responsive to the community around them.
We work with the community to find out what they need and give them what they need. It’s not hard. It’s engaging and gives me something to do that I have not been able to do. It makes feel like I’m a part of a collective vision. It makes me feel useful. I don’t have many other chances in my life where I feel really useful.
In the end, Y-LLEAD is not only helping participants feel valuable and connected to one another, it is also helping them to appreciate their own minds.
As teens, we are always told what to do, but with Y-LLEAD, every day is a learning experience- I have learned to think for myself. Thinking for yourself is hard work but it’s worth it.
“We have seniors here that have been here for years and they don’t want to come out and mix with the new population.”
This sentiment was met with approval from other residents and visitors of the J. Van Story Branch apartment following an interactive workshop developed by Dance and B’More for Artists Within. Dance & B’More provides biweekly movement classes and multi-disciplinary workshops with the residents of the J. Van Story Branch Senior apartments. Dancers and residents collaborate to create new memory based works in movement and spoken word intended to increase activities for the residents, improve memory and increase residents’ mobility.
Artists Within is a coalition of award-winning arts and activist organizations engaged with social practice. Working with Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., the Central Baltimore Partnership, and MICA’s Baltimore Art + Justice Project, the Artists Within coalitions seeks to bring new energy to the community development efforts underway in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The coalition includes Dance & B’More, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, Single Carrot Theatre, and Youth Learning Lab of Education and Applied Design. Working with local residents ranging from middle school students to senior citizens, the coalition activates and cultivates the artists, designers, and performers within these residents with the intention of increasing local participation in the arts and in community development efforts.
On this brisk October day, five senior residents and one visitor participated in the hour-long Dance and B’More workshop led by CJay Phillip. Participants told stories of their favorite concerts and childhood memories. These stories were set to music and movement led by the musicians, therapists and dancers. Ranging from ages 62 to 80, participants completed warm up activities, sang Motown and moved their bodies to African drum and keyboard. After the workshop, residents sat down to talk about their experience, their hopes and their challenges living in J. Van Story Branch. More importantly, the seniors talked about coming out.
“Sometimes, some people do [come out] and some people don’t. Some people don’t even speak.”
Coming out at J. Van Story Branch has multiple layers of meaning here. Coming out is not just about leaving one’s apartment; coming out also means feeling safe, being heard and having a sense of kinship with other residents and visitors in the building.
“Older people used to come out more but then other people was being nasty to them. They don’t have no security or nothing so the older people just stay in their rooms now.”
Eight years ago, the population at J. Van Story branch changed from seniors only to a mixed population of ages and abilities. As the population has shifted, the number of activities designed to engage residents has decreased, while fears, insecurity and isolation has increased. But things may be changing for the good.
“It’s a good thing, this is something we need. When they [Dance and B’More] come out, I always come out.”
Through Artists Within, Dance and B’More is bringing in activities residents enjoy and helping residents feel connected across population through movement, memory and community building. Over the next year, Artist Within and Dance and B’More will be able to see if by consistently coming in, residents will feel safe coming out.
How old are you?
I am 31 and 3/4 years old.
Which neighborhood do you live in and which neighborhood do you work in?
I live in Charles Village and work in McElderry Park.
Describe your art or organization?
The CGL is a community wellness center. TRW is about engaging in healing practices (from storytelling to martial arts; acupuncture to quilting) as a way of working through trauma on both individual and community levels. The idea is that working on this kind of urgent but difficult material helps free up our energy – which we can then apply to social action, arts, and all the good stuff.
I also write songs and poems in fits and starts.
What are you currently working on?
TRW just hosted its first session, and we’re going to be having these events every Tuesday evening for the rest of 2014. They’re happening here, at 2424 McElderry St (21205), between 6:30-8pm. I’m trying to balance my time between coordinating our facilitators, building a case for what we’re doing through the literature on trauma informed community work, doing outreach and connecting with other folks working on similar issues, hunting for grant support, and preparing for a kickoff workshop that we’re hosting at the end of this month.
What social justice cause(s) are you particularly drawn to, and why?
It’s hard to pick just one, but I’m particularly interested in any effort that expands access and participation for people whose hours and mojo are too often chewed up with the day-to-day of survival against an inhumane economic backdrop – stuff like stable housing, free and relevant education, community ownership in development processes, minimizing barriers to health care, etc. I hope that TRW – with free one-on-one counseling and specialized holistic courses – can contribute in a small way to a larger movement toward actualization and power building for both individuals and communities. Why – because I’ve watched myself and people I love put real passions and justice work on the backburner in the pursuit of survival and too often, distraction. So I get excited about anything that brings more voices into the conversation – not just politicians, academics, and foundation folks – particularly voices which might have lost faith in themselves or the use in trying somewhere along the way.
Who or what inspires you?
For starters – time in nature, peoples’ movements, music, and my excellent cat. Enough sleep, good food, and walking a lot help, too.
What’s the best part about being an artist or running an arts organization in Baltimore?
There’s enthusiasm and a wide-openness – it feels like being part of a very large and organic thing which hasn’t yet been co-opted and sold back to its participants.
What’s the worst part about being an artist or running an arts organization in Baltimore?
Part-time jobs on the weekends help make ends meet, but mean missing some great happenings.
What sort of and/or social justice projects would you love to take on?
When I have a little bit more bandwidth – by November, maybe? – I want to get more involved in housing issues. Connecting people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore to some of the city’s extensive vacant housing seems obvious and urgent.
Who would you like to collaborate on a project with?
So many people in so many arenas – for now, I’m focusing on all the different ways that TRW is linking up with other projects and amazing folks.
What’s one social justice organization that people need to know about, and why?
I think that YES (Youth Empowered Society) is really awesome. I was homeless on and off as a teenager and wish that there’d been such a place at that time – but living in the suburbs, I might not have heard about it even had it existed. So I hope that the word has gotten out to young people who are in a similar position now.
What type of ways do you see artists addressing social justice issues in Baltimore?
Countless ways – from the subtle and coded to the really representational and documentarian. And not just in artwork but, perhaps more importantly, in personal practices and values – communities that are engaged in the trial and error process of modeling a more just society on a small scale, day-to-day, in hundreds of different ways throughout the city.
How do you think artists or arts organizations are changing Baltimore?
Again – countless ways, and some have their downsides. But I think that Baltimore’s becoming known as a center of energy and artistic freedom, and that’s both great and true. And I think that there’s a reverberating effect there – that tone and mood become infectious, and more and more people claim the space for art in their own lives.