Lisa Fitzhugh was working for the mayor's office as an adviser on environmental and utilities issues when an encounter with breast cancer caused her to rethink the direction her life was going. "It was almost like divine inspiration," she says. "I realized there had to be something more relevant I could do with my life."
She'd attended many public meetings at newly renovated city facilities and community centers and noticed they were being used as nothing more than rec rooms because there was little money for educational programs. So she started Arts Corps, a nonprofit organization that provides free arts classes in everything from sculpting and painting to hip-hop and break dancing to kids in grades K-12 who are in underserved communities. One of the first benefactors was Pearl Jam, who donated $25,000.
Currently, Arts Corps works with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and after-school learning centers to provide classes in 17 facilities across the city. "Basically, we find the best and the brightest in the teaching artist community, we hire them for a competitive wage, and we match them with after-school facilities," says Fitzhugh. Some of the best and the brightest include Eduardo Mendonca, a Brazilian recording artist; Sonya Boothroyd, founding member and artistic director of TURF, a Seattle break-dance theater company; sculptor Tomas Oliva Jr.; and visual artist John Feodorov.
Since its inception, Arts Corps has tripled the number of participating facilities and doubled the number of students enrolled. Last year, it offered 28 classes, reaching a total of 750 students. Starting on Sept. 30, it'll offer classes including video production, digital photography, and hip-hop/ spoken word.
Over time, Arts Corps has developed partnerships with organizations like the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the Henry Art Gallery. At the end of the quarter, the students can display their work at places like the Intiman Theater, Seattle Repertory Theater, and SAM. "What we're finding is that these organizations have education dollars to spend, but they don't know how to reach these communities. We've become a bridge for that," says teaching artist Tina LaPadula.
Last spring, LaPadula ran an acting class at the Highpoint YMCA in West Seattle that was working on a puppet show about Marco Polo. When someone was shot outside during one of the classes, the class decided to drop Marco Polo and do a play about resolving conflict through dance and beat competitions instead of violence. The short play, being written by the students, reflects Arts Corps' commitment to allow them to deal with issues relevant to their own lives. As one of the kids put it, "This isn't just acting, this is real life."
"Recently we had three different groups from three different neighborhoods onstage drumming," says Amy Maguire, another teaching artist. "To see them dealing with each other and listening to each other—that's the beginning of breaking through the neighborhood boundaries that are so intense in Seattle."
For more information and a full list of classes and facilities visit, www.artscorps.org. firstname.lastname@example.org