Community arts can bring about social change

By Jen Meyer - Photo courtesy of SCOSAG

Styling: Jen Meyer - Photo courtesy of SCOSAG

Photography: Jen Meyer - Photo courtesy of SCOSAG

October 31, 2005

To date, there are 126 graduates of the Community Arts Training Institute collaborating, creating and making a difference in the St. Louis area. Artists of all disciplines – poets, visual artists, performers, musicians – are bringing the arts to nontraditional audiences (read: not the crowd at Friday-night gallery walks), with the mission of creating social change.

But these artists are not working alone; they are working in partnership with social-service providers and community workers, a high percentage of whom are from health- and human-service agencies. These nontraditional audiences – homeless men in transitional housing programs, residents of juvenile detention centers, refugee youth, at-risk populations from children to seniors – are engaging with art on their own turf to bring about healing and improvement in their quality of life.

“The people who are doing these programs, working in these kinds of collaborations, [would] not be working at the level they are now without [this training],” said Roseann Weiss, director of Community Art Programs and Public Art Initiatives at the Regional Arts Commission and director of the CAT Institute. “CAT helps the artists and social-service providers to think about collaborations that make a difference, to expand beyond their own abilities as individuals. In addition to implementation, we teach them how to find funding for these new programs.”

Following a competitive nomination, application and interview process, the ninth session of the CAT Institute convenes this month, bringing together eight artists of various disciplines and eight social-service providers or community workers. The fellows are provided with more than 50 hours of training over intensive, two-day sessions 10 hours a month for five months.

They’re led by a variety of area educators, including Jane Ellen Ibur, a renowned writer and arts educator. The CAT Institute, widely considered to be a national model, has a rigorous curriculum that includes training on partnership and survival strategies, identifying funding sources, legal and liability issues, assessment techniques and advocacy. One of the more unique elements of the training is the lab project, where teams are charged with developing a potentially sustainable program.

“Of the community arts training programs across the country, the CAT Institute has a much larger emphasis on lab projects,” said Weiss. “We create these small teams of three or four to create a model for a community arts project, and some of these have spurred new programs.” The Community CollaborARTive was an extension of a CAT lab project led by artist Con Christeson. The program works with clients of Peter and Paul Community Services (a transitional-housing program) to document through art their personal journeys from homelessness to independent living.

For some, the CAT experience has led to dramatic career changes. “CAT really broadened my horizons. And to learn about the power of art not only as an artist, but how it can affect people in a community, gave me a vision about what I want to do with art,” said Byron Rogers, who graduated this past spring. “The experience really made me focus, gave me goals in life.”

The experience went beyond enhancing his current position; it led him to a new one. Rogers, now an art teacher at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis, has continued to work on community arts programs. As the youth program director at Wesley House, a community-based center with an after-school program for kids, he collaborated with Logos School to produce a mural on an outside wall of Wesley House in a North Side neighborhood.

“By exposing inner-city youth to art, [we encourage them to] express emotions that they normally wouldn’t share: their fears, angers, ability to talk about pain,” said Rogers. “My goal is to get kids focused on art as their outlet so they don’t lash out on anger but lash out on paper.” Exposure to the arts for some of Rogers’ students has provided much more than an outlet. “A lot of these kids didn’t know they had talent or ability or a gift,” said Rogers. “A lot of them have developed good skills in poetry and art.”

The Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma, a community-based program that provides mental-health services to refugees in St. Louis, has implemented a number of successful community arts programs for refugee youth. Anne Farina, director of youth services who graduated from CAT this past spring, had never heard of the program and had no expectations.

“I just knew that there’s a lovely relationship between social services and art and artists,” said Farina. “As a social worker, I had some experience working with artists, but [CAT] took everything to another level.” One of these programs is Project Common Ground, a performing-arts initiative dedicated to bringing diverse teens together to explore their similarities and differences through artistic expression.

Prior to the development of Project Common Ground, Farina helped to develop arts programming for what is now called International Play Ground. One of the most poignant stories Farina recalled is about a young girl who fled Africa with her mother to escape female circumcision. “She had spent years in hiding; she was fleeing persecution and understandably had issues in school [when she got here],” she said.

“She started coming to the International Play Ground, and this creative mind just emerged,” Farina continued. “She started writing poems and sharing them. There are so many stories like this. When [these kids engage], they feel like they can do anything now; they feel amazing, and they want to do it again.”

2005/2006 Community Arts Training Institute fellows

• Brandie Adams-Piphus, a program manager for Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation and budding digital artist
• June Christian, a teacher with Urban Strategies at Adams Elementary finishing her Ph.D. in education
• Tom Dykas, a potter and arts educator
• Andra Harkins, a music educator specializing in opera
• Nanette Hegamin, a photographer, retired health administrator/educator and Peace Corps veteran
• Joel Jackson, a youth outreach specialist at Project ARK, an HIV/AIDS service organization, and Project Guardian leader
• Linda Jones, a director of the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund
• Heidi Lung, a sculptor and associate educator for community programs with the Saint Louis Art Museum
• Mark Pagano, a musician involved with such organizations as ARCHS, The South City Open Studio and Gallery for Children and Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma
• Serena Muhammad, a poet and executive director of the St. Louis branch of America SCORES, a soccer and literacy organization
• Sarah Shimchick, a social worker who is also involved with That Uppity Theatre Company
• Lezlie Silverstein, a visual artist working with Craft Alliance and COCA’s Urban Arts Programs
• Anna Sturgis, a social worker with the International Institute
• Karashia Tabbs, associate program director and case worker for emergency shelter services at Peter & Paul Community Services
• Kericee Tatum, an artist and art and technology specialist for COCA’s Urban Arts Programs
• Jelena Todic, a social worker in the Bosnian community

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