The ART SQUAD goes to Hollywood!

The ART SQUAD goes to Hollywood!

Actually they didn’t but I did go to the NeighborWorks Conference in Los Angeles last month to give a presentation about CHWC’s Art Squad and all the wonderful things they do for our neighborhood but lets start from the beginning.

It all started nearly 4 years ago when I took the Community Organizer job at Community Housing of Wyandotte County here in Kansas City, Kansas. My goal from the first day was to engage youth in our community through the Arts and to help them use Art as a tool to engage their community. First there were after school Art classes about creativity, technology and self-expression. We started an Art club and quickly had a small following.

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The first summer they helped neighbors build a community garden growing vegetables, raspberries and blackberries, installed a bench and a birdbath. They started sharing their Art experiences with the community by offering Art classes on different street corners each week during the months of June and July. They canvassed neighborhoods, delivered fliers, cleaned alleyways and began taking responsibility for what goes on in their community.

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The next year the Art classes were moved to the community garden where raised beds were added for community members to grow their own vegetables. Where residents could stop and rest, enjoy their lunch or read a book. This is when they came up with the idea to make our alleyways cleaner, safer and a place where young children could ride their bikes and play. They wanted to remove gang tagging on garages along the alleyway to make them more inviting. So they worked with neighbors to paint colorful murals. CHWC provided solar powered motion detection lights to light up the murals, the alleyway and discourage tagging. They submitted and received a grant  to paint more murals and to actually pay themselves for their work.

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Aside from their Art classes, garden work and murals they worked alongside of me on other projects like the development of the EPIC ARTS Studio in a nearby neighborhood. It was a project of love for all involved converting a vacant storefront and former BBQ joint into a renovated Art space with no budget and all volunteer labor. The space now houses the EPIC Clay Studio operated by our community partner Accessible Arts. Accessible Arts provides programing for all ages and abilities. EPIC is a favorite for students from the Kansas State School of the Blind and community members. The ART SQUAD has also been instrumental in improving a local park by helping to add landscaping, trees and benches.

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This last summer they moved the weekly Art classes to the park and asked everyone to help clean up the park at the end of each session. They planned the First Annual Art Straveganza with 15 artist-providing projects for over 200 attendees. They started a walking club at the park handing out pedometers, a 12-week walking guide and are kicking off this season by organizing residents to meet up for a walk in the park every other week on Saturdays. They have created logos and t-shirts and currently manage the parks Facebook page. Two members of the ART SQUAD attended the NeighborWorks Resident Leadership Training in Sacramento last year presenting a proposal to further develop the Community Alley Renovation (C.A.R.) program to include landscaping by murals, signage, interactive Art projects and alley tours.

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This summer they will expand upon the C.A.R. program which has now been changed to C.A.R.E. (Community Alley Renovation and Engagement). Continue to offer Art in the park, recruit volunteers and organize more walking groups. Canvass neighborhoods and help with our new project – building an urban farm next to an elementary school. Further engaging school children and neighbors and helping weave this beautiful fabric we call community.

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So the question becomes ”What now?” What do we do with these young people that are invested in our community as they go on to graduate from high school and enter college? Do we keep starting over and release these experienced and dedicated individuals to find jobs at retail stores or fast food restaurants? Do we just say, “thanks for the memories” and “have a good life”? Or do we take advantage of all the hard work it took to get here? Reward them for their commitment and loyalty? Is there a better idea?

Why not hire them as community organizers during the summer? After nearly 4 years, as apprentice, they know how to do the job! They can energize communities, help plan events and recruit new members. They can and do serve as role models for younger children in the neighborhood. They can and do enlist their friends to help clean alleys, parks, and vacant lots and canvass neighborhoods. They can serve as representatives on organizational boards giving a voice to our youth. They are the ‘NEXT’ leaders of our communities but we have to invest in them now! We can’t lose them to summer jobs at fast food restaurants simply because we didn’t think it mattered.

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