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Go Local Providence: “PowerPlayer: New Urban Arts Executive Director Jason Yoon”

GoLocalProv names Executive Director Jason Yoon a PowerPlayer and chats with him about running “one of the most successful youth organizations in the city.”


This week’s PowerPlayer is Jason Yoon, executive director of New Urban Arts. Mr. Yoon was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about the work his organization his doing with young people in Providence and his vision for the future.

1) You run one of the most successful youth organizations in the city. Tell us about the work high school students are doing at New Urban Arts.

All of our programs are centered on creative and independent thinking. I like to think that New Urban Arts encourages healthy rebellious troublemaking.

Right now, we’re in the middle of summer programs. We have two main programs, our school-year Youth Mentorship in the Arts program which pairs local teenagers with artist mentors in small groups.

In the summer, we enroll thirty teenagers in paid arts internships. One annual summer project is our Art Inquiry program (check out our resource guides). Another is the Untitlement Project, a writing and poetry program where youth unpack identity, gender, privilege, power and sexuality. Lastly, in partnership with Henry Schein, eight of our students are receiving scholarships to create artwork for their corporate collection.

2) We hear so many negative stories about Providence’s youth. What else needs to be done to help young people growing up in the city to make sure they stay on track?

First, youth need more love, safety and stability. Providence is a great city, but like many American cities, poverty and unemployment are pretty acute. The share of our students reporting that they qualify for subsidized lunch has risen from 74% in 2007 to nearly 90%. Our enrollment has doubled in the same time too.

We create a stable safe space for young people staffed by caring, creative artists. In America’s education reform dialogue, there’s way too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and punitive accountability. But we don’t want to discuss the social and economic instability in so many kids’ lives. Maybe it’s easier to just blame a kid for failing a test than to take collective responsibility for every child’s well being.

The next challenge then is to authentically involve young people as real partners in their education. For so many youth and particularly low-income youth of color, we find they experience public education as something that happens to them. A young man recently wrote a powerful op ed in the Washington Post about his public school education that illustrates this disparity pretty sharply.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

We have an open floor plan and we’re full of enthusiastic creative youth energy roughly from 12-8PM. My days can be meetings with staff either 1:1 or as a team, meetings/calls with board members, board committees, meetings with funders, partners, neighbors. I also carve time to think and write. You probably see me a lot at White Electric (my second office). Evenings and weekends I unwind by running, swimming, or dancing (salsa).

4) Give us your vision for where New Urban Arts will be in 5 years.

First, my vision is that New Urban Arts becomes reasonably secure in our new home. We’re in the home stretch of major capital campaign to get to that point.

More broadly, we want to do great local work and be nationally significant. Small Giants is a book that’s influenced my thinking about being both small AND great. We don’t want to be the McDonalds or Walmart of youth arts mentoring. Instead, we’re going deeper with our two core constituents: Providence youth and the local artists who mentor them.

We also want to do whatever we can to help lift our field. As a national leader in arts and youth development, we’re also doing more consulting and advising work. We’re in an exciting partnership with Yollocalli, a Chicago-based youth arts program and locally, we’ve been working with Providence’s art teachers through the school department. In September, we’re re-launching our website and putting resources under a Creative Commons license so we can freely share our work.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I’m announcing it here publicly. I’ve officially given up on the New York Knicks. 🙁

6) Quick Hitters

Role Model: 1) My parents who have given everything for my brother and I to have success in this country. 2) Everyone in the New Urban Arts community 3) Philip Guston a successful painter willing to take a big risk in embracing political content late in his life.

Favorite Restaurant: Nick’s on Broadway, great food and great supporters of New Urban Arts.

Best Beach: Westerly’s state beach.

Best Book You’ve Read in the Last Year: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.

Advice for the Next Jason Yoon: Enjoy the ride. This will probably be the best job of your life.
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