A Safe Haven for Creativity

July 11, 2017

Executive Director James Miles looks over a student painting during Arts Corps' Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute.

Voices ring through the hallways of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. Young voices. They perform original music and poetry, and chatter over half-painted canvases.

These voices belong to teenage students who find a creative haven at Arts Corps, through a week-long arts intensive program, one of many the organization provides throughout the year. These programs offer arts learning opportunities throughout Seattle and King County, largely for low-income youth of color who may not have access to arts education.
In the music room, pairs of teens work on production, writing and performing. Mirabai Kukathsa and Zora Seboulisa hover over a typewriter. Seboulisa taps her foot and hums a rhythm as Kukatha’s fingers patter on the keys. “I’ve never been this productive in my life,” Seboulisa said. “I come home exhausted every day, but it’s fulfilling. You don’t have time to be tired when you’re working.”

The duo represents many other students who seek out arts engagement as a result of Arts Corps’ programming. The organization provides a handful of after school and summer programs such as this one, but classroom programming is their forte.

Arts Corps launched the Creative Schools Initiative at two schools in 2012. The program, which now runs at four West Seattle elementary schools, is an intensive arts integration program aimed at addressing racial and economic disparity in arts access and education.
“We’re really trying to respond to the interests of our students and integrate those interests with art to create a world in which all voices are valued,” said Executive Director James Miles, who joined the organization early this year.
Students interests can range from simple matters such as the addition of chocolate milk to lunch menus, to those as systematically complex as police brutality or immigration rights. Teaching artists then aim to incorporate these interests into various forms of expression. For example, theater or visual arts may be woven into writing class; African drumming or ballet into math class, Miles said.

To gauge effectiveness, Arts Corps monitored grades, engagement in curriculum and surveyed students at the end of programs. Findings from the first two years of programming suggest that the model strengthens students’ learning mindsets and academic performance, particularly for students in need of special education.

“We’re seeing changes in classroom climate,” Miles said. “Students feel more confident and comfortable about school.”

Funds raised during Seattle Art Fair’s Beneficiary Preview will go toward expanding the initiative — possibly to three more schools in 2018, as well as deepening the impact in schools that have shown great need and response. The organization hopes to broaden their reach within the school by prolonging programming into after school hours, as well as into the evening for family sessions, Miles said. While the in-class programs tend to emphasize music, poetry and visual arts, out of school courses channel aesthetic appreciation. Classes will hone specific skills, such as hula, or breakdancing.

As Art Corps continues to develop its programming and strive for greater equity within the arts community, Miles said he hopes exposure to the programs “engenders young people’s love and respect for the arts”.

Kukatha illustrates this vision, as she returns for her third summer of courses. Between verses, she and Seboulisa chat about creative support, and the safety they feel in failing within the space. “There aren’t a lot of places you find community like this,” Kukatha said. “These people are separated by so many miles, but we come together here.”

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