Summer Arts Training Programs: Creating Access for Future Generations

Photo: Theresia Walker-Kuhne Photo Credit: Donna Walker- Kuhne

Growing up in Chicago, I had the fortune to be paid to learn to dance as part of my local Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). My twin sister and I took the bus from the south side of Chicago to the west side where the program was held. It was a 90-minute ride and our morning commute often included eating our breakfast on the bus. Five days a week—from 9 in the morning until 6 in the early evening—we studied West African, Ballet, acrobatics and Jazz dance. It was such a great way to immerse myself in dance and make a bit of money. Frankly, I was more excited about dancing all day, studying with two of my favorite teachers, than making money.

We didn’t only learn dance. What I found most enriching was the cultural experience—learning the history behind each form of dance, which provided clarity and made learning the choreography so much easier. I now know that the seeds of appreciation and my passion for the arts were planted and cultivated during SYEP. And that journey is part of why I am an arts administrator, devoting my career to creating access to the arts for all people.

As I reported in a blog post last year about the now-defunct National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, research has demonstrated the positive impact the arts have on youth, such as the development of critical thinking skills, an eye for detail, and empathy towards others. The need for programs that provide youth with opportunities for creative development and expression is even more critical, along with national platforms that showcase the constructive value of the arts and humanities and shine a light on our youths’ dire need for these outlets. At the same time, cultivating a passion for the arts in youth is planting seeds for the future—a generation who will not only push for access but will comprise the arts’ audiences of the future.

Now it’s time for my daughter to have her summer arts experience. We are headed to Chicago for the six-week, Forward Momentum Chicago/After School Matters dance program under the direction of Pierre Lockett, founder and executive director of Forward Momentum Chicago, and the former director of community engagement for the Joffrey Ballet. While doing research for a summer program for my daughter, I was delighted to come across Pierre’s program. We first met nearly25 years ago when he was a dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem.

My hope is that my daughter also will have a great experience, which will lead her to a deeper understanding and appreciation for the arts. It doesn’t matter if she chooses the arts as her career path, the seeds for her becoming a consistent patron, audience member, donor and/or board member are being planted through her participation in this dance program.

I encourage you to investigate opportunities to connect your children or the youth with whom you engage to summer arts programs, so that we can continue to cultivate the next generation of arts administrators, audiences and donors. It’s another gateway through which we can provide access to the arts to a diverse audience, and keep those bridges open for future generations.