Seattle’s Future Leaders and Artists Find a Start at Youngstown

Posted on April 13, 2015, 7:00 pm
14 mins


Engagement in the arts is beneficial at any age, and it is particularly important for young persons. These facts are supported by numerous studies over the last century, including a 2012 report released by the National Endowment for the Arts that showed that at-risk youth of low socioeconomic status had better academic outcomes, higher career goals and were more civically engaged if they had more exposure to the arts. “The arts” include visual arts, dance, music and theatre. Visual arts teach us to be better observers of our environment and think critically about it; the performing arts heighten one’s physical awareness and foster cooperation and collaboration. All of them can encourage self-discipline and empathy.

However, for many students there is no arts education at all. Budget cuts have drastically reduced arts programs in schools around the country, especially in distressed communities. Even schools in areas with high property values (and therefore more tax revenue) have turned to private funding to maintain or recover arts programs. To supplement this lack and utilize the arts’ ability to improve student comprehension and interest, the idea of “arts integration” is being tried in a few school districts nationally. These programs use art and art history to create context in other subjects and enhance the visual appeal of lessons, but don’t give any priority to art education for its own sake. In short, though the power of arts education is beyond dispute, it is the first thing to be cut from many curricula.

Thankfully, a number of nonprofits here in Seattle are stepping in to provide creative engagement for youth of diverse backgrounds. Many of these major nonprofits, such as Arts Corps, Reel Grrls and Nature Consortium are housed at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in the Delridge Neighborhood of Southwest Seattle. Opened in 2006, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center is a dynamic hub known for its arts programming integrated with social justice. Youngstown is unique in the Seattle landscape, housing seven nonprofit organizations, the Southwest Interagency alternative high school for at-risk youth, and 36 low-income artist live/work lofts. It offers 7,000 square feet of rentable space, including a comprehensive theater, movement studio, recording studio, kitchen and classroom spaces.

A project and property of the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association (DNDA), Youngstown is housed in the Frank B. Cooper Historic School Building. Through its location and programming, Youngstown serves as one of the best models of comprehensive community development through its emphasis on arts education, environmental stewardship, affordable housing and historical preservation.

A Sense of History, Place and Community

The impressive brick building was constructed in 1917 as a schoolhouse for the children of the working class families drawn to the area by the Seattle Steel Company, established in 1905. After the steel mill opened, the neighborhood was named Youngstown as a nod to the steel town in Ohio. In 1939, the schoolhouse was renamed after Frank B. Cooper, the superintendent for Seattle schools in the early 1900s. In 1947, educator Thelma Dewitty was hired to teach at the school, becoming the first African-American to teach in Seattle Public Schools. Dewitty also served as the president of the NAACP’s Seattle branch in the late 1950s. Her advocacy inside and outside the classroom was a major factor in Youngstown’s designation as a historic landmark, following the closure of the school in 1989. The building languished as a storehouse for the next ten years until the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association acquired and renovated the building through tremendous community support, resulting in the creation of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.

Today, Youngstown honors its history by continuing the building’s legacy of education through arts engagement with the multicultural and inter-generational communities that call Delridge home. As the center’s current director, David Bestock, says, “An important part of what we do is advocate for working class families and the folks who settled in this area originally, as well as advocating for communities of color and low-income families, and pushing forward issues of social justice.”

The neighborhood originally drew Slavic, Italian and Scandinavian families to the formally Duwamish land, then Japanese and African-American families around the Second World War, and later Filipino, Southeast Asian and Samoan families over the next few decades. Diverse cultural influences and a working class spirit persist through the halls and programs of Youngstown in its current formation.

Soto Style Dance participatory performance at the Arts in Nature Festival hosted by Nature Consortium. Photo credit Allyce Andew.

Soto Style Dance participatory performance at the Arts in Nature Festival hosted by Nature Consortium. Photo credit Allyce Andew.

A central component of Youngstown’s location is the adjacent West Duwamish Greenbelt. The greenbelt is the largest in the city, one of Seattle’s largest wildlife habitat corridors, and home to fox, frogs, hawks and bald eagles. Nature Consortium, one of the anchor tenant organizations of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, does environmental restoration in the West Duwamish Greenbelt, often hiring musicians to serenade volunteers as they work. Nature Consortium is unique among local orgs in that it exists at the intersection of arts education and environmental stewardship, both of which are essential for the health of the city. It educates youth and adults through its EcoARTS Program and organizes an annual Arts in Nature Festival at Camp Long, a family friendly weekend event that includes four performance stages, art installations and hands-on activities. This year’s festival will be held on August 22 and 23.

Another anchor tenant organization at Youngstown is Arts Corps, a nationally recognized leader in nonprofit arts education. Created in 2000 in response to the decline of arts education in schools, Arts Corps offers out-of-school arts programming to low income communities of color, serving over 2,000 students annually, grades K-12 in over thirty partner sites. In 2012, Arts Corps was one of twelve organizations to be awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by First Lady Michelle Obama, the highest honor for out-of-school arts and humanities programs. In 2011, the renowned youth led poetry program Youth Speaks Seattle joined Arts Corps, deepening the organization’s impact across the city. Youth Speaks Seattle empowers young persons to be leaders and artists through spoken word in a variety of programs, such as open mics, writing circles and poetry slams. Arts Corps is a testament to the importance of arts education in building community through its host of successful, in-demand programs for children and teens, led by a staff of professional teaching artists.

The most recent organization to join the Youngstown community is Reel Grrls, a nonprofit dedicated to media arts and leadership training for girls ages nine to nineteen. Reel Grrls believes that women should be behind the camera as well as in front of it. Men dominate today’s media and film landscape, and Reel Grrls aims to empower girls to learn the skills and gain the confidence to tell their own stories through technology. Like many of the other organizations housed at Youngstown, Reel Grrls is one-of-a-kind, working for greater equity in the workforce by shaping leaders for a better tomorrow.

"Hansel and Gretel" by Mia Bian. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Hansel and Gretel” by Mia Bian, oil on canvas, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

As noted earlier, the nonprofit organizations housed at Youngstown form just a portion of what the multipurpose building has to offer. Youngstown makes the most of every space and resource in the former schoolhouse, one example of which is the gallery space located in the central hallway of the main floor. Youngstown recently invited a group of University of Washington art students to showcase their work in MELT, an exhibition centered on childhood and education. A standout from the exhibition was Mia Bian, whose evocative oil paintings of children at play blended references to traditional fairy and folk tales and the Venus of Willendorf, all motivated by the need to contemplate and address pressing issues, especially the human trafficking of children. The MELT exhibition is a great example of how Youngstown is forging institutional connections throughout Seattle to streamline the road for aspiring artists of all disciplines and backgrounds.

Looking Towards the Future

Despite the great success and impact of the Youngstown, the Cultural Arts Center has also faced many challenges and obstacles, especially following the recession in 2008, which shrunk the staff and programming considerably. David Bestock, who has lived upstairs in the Cooper Artist Housing at Youngstown since 2009, became the director in 2012 and came in knowing that, “Youngstown really needed a torchbearer and to be reinvigorated.” Bestock has followed through on his promise, helping solidify Youngstown as the cultural and artistic nexus of the Delridge community through new programming such as the #AwakenDelridge campaign, which included an extensive mural project unveiled this past summer.

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The unveiling of the mural “Awaken” outside Youngstown. Photo credit Jenny Crooks.

The large-scale collaborative mural along the parking lot retaining wall at Youngstown was a community-wide effort of DNDA and Youngstown staff in partnership with two professional artists who guided eight students in the creation of the mural, according to feedback from community stakeholders. Titled “Awaken,” its images of the Duwamish greenbelt and people, the Seattle skyline, and portraits of the multicultural and intergenerational community of Delridge all reflect the palpable sense of history and place, the social and environmental awareness that pervade Youngstown.

The #AwakenDelridge campaign will end on May 5 with the Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG bonanza, an annual, one-day event that supplements individual donations to local non-profits. As Youngstown resurges once more as a place for and by the community, GiveBIG is an excellent opportunity to invest in Youngstown’s future as it approaches 10 years in operation in 2016, and then the building’s centennial anniversary in 2017.

According to the 2010 Seattle census, the Delridge Neighborhood in Southwest Seattle had the highest percentage of youth per capita as a neighborhood. By these numbers, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center exists as a vital incubator for the next generation of community leaders in our region and beyond. As Seattle experiences rapid and widespread change that displaces longtime residents—often working class and communities of color—Youngstown is a wonderful model not just of advocacy and education, but also of development done right. In essence, the programs at work at Youngstown are helping Seattle to grow up to be a better city while staying young at heart.

David Strand is a writer and aspiring curator based in Seattle.