PRISCILLA / EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF ST. LOUIS ARTWORKS
Meet Priscilla. She’s the Executive Director of St. Louis ArtWorks, an afterschool program that increases educational and career opportunities for youth in the St. Louis region through apprenticeships in the arts. Michelle Obama recently awarded ArtWorks with the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, thereby recognizing it as a top youth development program in the country. We are honored to highlight Priscilla, St. Louis ArtWorks, and the hardworking apprentices because they are working towards the types of inclusionary change that we need. And oh yes, they are blooming.
HOW WILL YOU BLOOM IN THE NEXT YEAR AND HOW WOULD YOU LIKE ST. LOUIS ARTWORKS TO BLOOM?
Personally, I’d like to bloom by continuing on this journey that I am on with my National Arts Strategy class. It’s an amazing group of people from around the world studying ways to connect creativity in different non-profit organizations. I hope to bring that experience back to St. Louis ArtWorks to help it continue to grow, reach even more youth, become involved with more community partners, and create even more new works of art.
RECENTLY, MICHELLE OBAMA PRESENTED ST. LOUIS ARTWORKS WITH THE 2016 NATIONAL ARTS AND HUMANITIES YOUTH PROGRAM AWARD, WHICH MEANS NATIONAL RECOGNITION AS ONE OF THE BEST AFTER-SCHOOL CREATIVE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS IN THE COUNTRY. WHAT DOES THIS AWARD MEAN FOR YOU AND ARTWORKS?
Well I would have to say that this is a career topper for me personally and also a pinnacle of recognition for the organization. To be given an award that is the nation’s highest honor from the First Lady of the United States is…amazing. To be able to take one of our teens with her mother to Washington D.C. for the first time, show her the capital, bring her to the White House and the East Room, and have her be introduced to and get a hug from Michelle Obama was amazing! Even more so is the ability to bring it back home to St. Louis, get more people in the local area to learn about who we are and what’s in their backyard, and be proud that St. Louis ArtWorks has received such an honor.
YOU MENTIONED YOUR EXCITEMENT ABOUT FURTHER INTEGRATION INTO THE GREATER ST. LOUIS COMMUNITY; DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU HAVE RECEIVED RESOURCES AND POSITIVE RECEPTION FROM THE CITY?
We are moving forward with that. We have gotten a lot of press here and we are receiving a special proclamation from St. Louis County Government Center tonight, and one awareness building effort leads to another. The end result that we hope for is besides interfacing with more members of our community, we are able to leverage this award to create revenue to support additional youth in our program. I would love it if we could meet the goal, in the next two years, of being able to employ up to 200 youth in a year.
Can you tell me about a specific moment when you knew that you were on the right track?
We’ve applied for this award [National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Award] for about seven years now and we’ve always been one of the 50 finalists and you get notified of that award by a FedEx delivery. So this year when the FedEx delivery came, I thought, “Oh, here’s another message saying that we’re one of the fifty but not the big winner.” When I opened it and saw that we were the big winner, there was a scream that you could hear throughout the building when I yelled “Yahoo!”
In general, we have been able to increase our efforts and the tools that we use to measure the impact of our program. We completed an 18-month grant a year ago to create a tool to measure the wellbeing and mental health impact on the youth within the program. Then we got a follow up grant that started in August to implement that tool and hope that we will be able to within the next five years and have it declared as one of the best practices of measuring and evaluating the impact of a program. Of course, when you have investors looking at providing funds for your program, they want to know what the return is on their investment. I think that this award helps us answer the question about the ROI as St. Louis ArtWorks has been recognized as one of the best programs in the nation and that’s pretty cool.
What would you say success means for you?
Success means for me that we’re able to show that the arts are a very valid part of the skills that any youth needs to succeed in the future. To pull in a broader network of supporters, corporations, individuals, and foundations who understand that science, technology, engineering, and math are all part of art and also, that art is part of all of them…to me, that would be successful.
Success looks like having youth complete our program and graduate from high school. Success is always about youth being able to go on and get a living wage job or accepted into secondary education and college. It’s about making sure that youth are finding their way towards something and not sitting idle and deteriorating as they age out of high school.
One of the best things about the program is that you require apprentices to have bank accounts and also that over 90% of the apprentices go on to graduate from high school. how did you decide to push the job training and fiscal literacy aspect of the program?
Well you know, there’s an old adage, “Form follows function.” In 2003-2004, we used to give the youth their paycheck directly and we found that so many of them would go to a high-end check-cashing place that would take 20% off the top. We found that others had parents that would take the money from them right away which meant that they had no bank account, no credit, and no history of where that money went. So we knew that we had to put an end to it. The following year we required that all apprentices have an account and have their money automatically deposited.
Well, that change meant that we needed to give them fiscal literacy training and teach them what it meant to have their own accounts, which meant that we began to talk to them about credit, credit history, credit score, good credit versus bad, and how both sides of that coin follow you for life. For most of them, this was their first checking or savings account and a way for them to enter their adult life with a credit rank already.
Many of these kids come from families who don’t even have their own bank accounts because they don’t trust the system. They don’t trust that being from lower income that debtors won’t follow them and take what little they were making. So it was a whole new way of looking at the world for them.
I liked what you said about getting the arts recognized as a viable and paying career path. Can you tell me more about how you chose the path that you did?
Oh! It was the particular river that I jumped in and where it took me, I guess! [laughs] I always tell the story of when I was in Kindergarten. At a parent open house, my teacher was showing all the little brown bears that were hanging on the wall that we had cut out and she told my mother that mine was the best. As far as I was concerned, she might have told that to every parent…but that sealed the deal right then and there. I was an artist. So I never doubted it, I never questioned it, and I always followed it.
Having somebody be that voice that says that you are good, is so important in anyone’s life. The fact that I ended up being involved with a non-profit organization and becoming its director was a complete accident of life. I had been a professional practicing artist for 15 years. Then I began teaching and then saw this job opportunity and thought it would be a way to condense the multiple adjunct positions that I had, into a single career. I jumped into it feet first and learned to swim by not drowning. [laughs] I was flailing around…not drowning, just floating.
One thing that I knew as an artist was that in order to make money, you need to be entrepreneurial and if you get a commission, it’s paid for ahead of time. And that is the direction that I began taking the program on and it turned out to be that once again, with form following function, the best thing we could have ever done was to teach kids about the business of art. We do not try to create professional artists, we use art as the vehicle to provide training for their future. We probably have about 30% of apprentices having self-identified as wanting to go into the arts as a career because by the time that they are seniors, their parents are already telling them that they need to pick something better.
What advice do you give your apprentices when they start out in the program?
I tell them that the most important skill they can develop first is how to introduce themselves articulately, how to look at someone’s body language to determine if their message was understood clearly, and to be able to keep eye contact while they do it.
The next main lesson is to teach them to explain what they are working on from a macro to micro level. They should not tell a guest, when asked what they are doing, that they are squirting red paint on a plate. They should tell them that they are creating a mural for a client and that the mural has a theme of “X” and in order to get started on the mural, they are squirting the red paint. [laughs] They usually explain it the other way around…most people do, actually. That’s a big lesson.
It’s practice, practice, practice. That is the most important skill that my father taught me and that is the most important skill that I can give them because your first impression when you meet someone new, who may be making a decision about your future, is so important.
I have a few friends who are creative BUT afraid to put themselves out there. Do you have advice for creatives who are afraid to pursue their dreams?
I would ask them to seriously ask themselves the question, “What are you afraid that will happen if you do?” It’s no different from any other interest that you may have. You may be afraid to cook for your family. You may be afraid to ask for a raise. You may be afraid to ask for a lot of things…but what happens if you don’t put yourself out there? Nothing. I’m more afraid of nothing than I am of anything else.
Can you tell me about an obstacle that you have overcome?
I think a personal obstacle for me was that I didn’t go to college until I was in my very late 30s. As an artist, I often felt that I was in competition with people who had degrees and I had a chip on my shoulder about that. I wanted to know what they knew that I didn’t. What made them better? And so finally there was only one way to find out. I needed to jump in and do it.
I was terrified to go to school, I hadn’t been in school since I was 18 years old but I jumped in and I did it. I maintained a straight 4.0 GPA all the way through graduate school which enabled me to get scholarships all the way through school. I also faced the obstacle of being able to afford school because I had three younger children I was putting through school as well.
As for obstacle in my career, it is always an obstacle every single day to find the financial support necessary to feed this big machine. It is very expensive to raise enough money to pay a stipend to all of these youth. We’ve also increased our studio space and office space size. I knew that if we didn’t move, we would just become stale, we wouldn’t be able to grow, we would grow stagnate, and we would lose support because of that.
What does art mean to you and what does it mean in terms of driving change?
Well, if you have someone with a mindset that art is a fluffy thing that cannot further a career or does not have a career attached to it or that it’s just for self gratification, you can have them look at people like Leonardo D’Vinci and Albert Einstein. You can have them look all of the inventors in Silicone Valley. You can have them think about product designers who design ergonomically structured things for use on a space shuttle. You can show them that a certain color can help to enforce a certain mood and change their environment.
You can show them that if they want to be full of wonder and awe through abstraction, they can do that by looking at something that could seem meaningless in the moment, and find out later that what they were really looking at was from science; and further, that it was from a scanning electron microscope looking at the double helix or blood cells. Art is everywhere.
LASTLY, What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for believing in the power of art and for believing in the power of youth who lead the next generation forward.