Know Milwaukee: ArtWorks – Empowering local youth
“There’s so much that needs to be said to the community and I feel like my voice could be heard by somebody and positively change somebody,” says Maisha Harvey, a 17-year-old from Milwaukee’s Northwest side.
Although she was a little shy at first, Harvey clearly has something to say. With her latest poem in hand, she jumped up to talk to me and met my gaze with unusual confidence, as if her message was more important than any embarrassment she might feel from reading her work aloud to a stranger.
“I want to talk about how it’s hard growing up… and I want to talk about abuse, just about the streets from my point of view so they can understand me better,” said Harvey. “I have experienced a lot of stuff in my life, and if I can help somebody [through my poetry], that would be a good thing.”
Harvey and 15 of her peers are interns at ArtWorks for Milwaukee, a non-profit organization that hires high school students that are at risk of not graduating (typically with a GPA of 2.0 or lower), have a disability, and/or lack resources & mentors needed for building a future of employment success for eight week programs, during which they learn an artistic technique that is used to create a piece of art.
All the while, they earn an hourly wage and learn skills that are necessary to get and keep a job in any industry.
“We use the arts as our method for engaging this population of kids that have fallen through the cracks and aren’t doing very well in traditional learning environments,” says Executive Director Meghan Koven.
ArtWorks was founded in 2001 by Dr. Laura Owens, a professor at UW-Milwaukee in the Department of Exceptional Education. Through a for-profit organization she founded called Creative Employment Opportunities (which finds work for individuals with disabilities), Owens recognized the need to help teens in similar circumstances learn the skills necessary to get jobs later.
Currently, ArtWorks is run by Koven and Outreach Manager Jodee Benavides, along with a seven-person Board of Directors. Programs are led by contracted local artists who understand the skill-building power the arts can have on young people.
Practical Work Experience
Though student interns work at developing and honing artistic skills at ArtWorks, for Koven, the objective is to make each program as close to what the students might expect in a job as possible. By offering vital skills and experience to put on their resumés, Koven hope that it will make ArtWorks interns more competitive in the job market.
“Most of the kids we hire have never had a job before,” says Koven. “They have to compete against kids with better grades, that have stronger family units, and that have more networks and connections to help them be successful.”
With a background in corporate human resources, Koven wants to make sure her interns can demonstrate skills like project management and professional communication, which will in turn help them develop a strong work ethic.
“We keep hearing from businesses that while they can teach someone how to make a sandwich or enter data or cut hair or whatever the case may be, they cannot teach someone how to have a good work ethic or how to work collaboratively with diverse teams of co-workers,” says Koven. “Those are exactly the kind of skills that we focus on here.”
To enhance the experience, interns earn an hourly wage with the opportunity for raises, they undergo performance evaluations, and as a reminder of how easy it can be to lose a job, there is a four-step disciplinary process that can end in termination, which mimics those commonly used in the workforce.
Artists and Community Activists
While the students learn these new skills, they are assigned projects that force them to investigate issues in their neighborhoods with programs like “The Positive Influence Project,” which requires interns to interview and paint an individual that has a positive influence on the community. Earlier this year, interns were commissioned by Maures Development Group to paint 8’ by 4’ murals that are now on display around the Franklin Square Apartments Building in Lindsay Heights.
Halfway through the summer programs, the beginning of that paradigm shift is already evident as the interns I meet tell me how they have found a voice they never thought they had — along with a sense of urgency to be heard.
“[The program] makes me think more positive, because usually I have a more negative [out]look on our youth, but I see that we can make a change and actually get somewhere positive,” says Khadejah Blair, 17, who is working with Harvey and others to create poems aimed at empowering youth to stop violence in the 53204 zip code. The project is part of the ”Positivity On Earth Teaches Inspirational Change” (POETIC) program, led by noted poet and spoken word artist Dan Vaughn.
For the second summer in a row, lead artist Nicole Lesser is running ”Mosaic Windows to your Community,” in which interns pair up and create a stained-glass mosaic window that conveys a message about their communities.
“It’s amazing to see how just a little confidence can go such a long way, and they’re so proud of their work at the end,” Lesser says of her interns growth over the course of the project. “I feel like that’s taken for granted a lot in schools. Here, they really care about their work because it’s their job.”
That confidence is starting to show in Amber Beatty,14, who is working on a mosaic to convey that the world “should be about peace and happiness and everybody loving each other.”
“I thought [art] was just drawing and painting pictures of people… but this is a new way of expressing my feelings to the world,” Beatty says.
The summer interns will unveil their work at the Safe Place Block Party on August 27 outside of the ArtWorks studio at 706 S 5th St. At the event (which is free and open to the public), the mosaics will be unveiled and available for purchase alongside the work of previous program participants. Additionally, interns from the POETIC program will release a CD of their own pieces, and will also perform some of them live.
Arts outreach as social justice
When intern wages, utilities for the Walker’s Point studio, supply costs and other expenses are factored in, each program ends up costing at least $12,500, limiting ArtWorks to six programs and 48 interns per year. Still, Koven is adamant about keeping the integrity of ArtWorks’ programming intact.
“While it would be cheaper if we stopped paying the kids, it is such a robust cornerstone of this realistic experience that I’m not willing to give it up,” she says.
However, in addition to grants, partnerships with other organizations, and fundraising, Koven is working on getting corporate sponsorships in order to get the funding necessary to help better serve and stay in touch with graduates of the program involved with ArtWorks.
“We don’t have a series of strategies to keep the kids engaged after they’re done with that eight-week project at this point, and we’re currently working with committed volunteers to change that,” Koven says. “ArtWorks’ Program Committee is vetting a graduated program model that would allow the organization to train more youth over longer periods of time while building in new leadership development opportunities.”
Although ArtWorks has only been able to keep in touch in with 60 percent of its interns since 2007, Koven is proud to report that all responding interns have stayed in high school or already graduated. Almost 20 percent of those still in touch have gone onto post-secondary education, 34 percent were able to get a job, and 86 percent of those who got a job have kept it.
For Koven, helping her interns find employment is a matter of social justice.
“We have a responsibility to one another in this city… ArtWorks cannot solve all of the problems that these kids have, but what we can do is teach them the basic skills to get a job that can be a bridge out of whatever hell it is they are living…everyone has a right to pursue the life that they want.”
Learn more about ArtWorks’ programs and find information on how you can get involved by visiting them online or calling (414) 708 – 9996.