I’m writing to ask you to support New Urban Arts today.
I often tell people, “Think of New Urban Arts as a big building full of creative resources and carefully trained adult artists who can teach you how to use those resources; then young people walk in, and we say, ‘use it all however you want.’”
This approach has made us the largest afterschool arts provider in Providence. Last year, we again reached an all-time high level of participation, with 783 students enrolling. I want to share a story with you about one of them:
David is a Providence Public School student who learned about New Urban Arts from a friend. He came to our studio because he heard that we provide RIPTA bus tickets. On his first day, he requested a bus ticket; we provided it and asked that he return with a completed enrollment form. The next time he came back, he brought his enrollment form and requested another bus ticket. We could tell he was interested, but he didn’t stay or participate.
We felt that he was testing us; clearly, he wasn’t sure whether this space was safe or trustworthy. We didn’t know why he felt this way, but we didn’t pry and kept giving him bus tickets. Eventually, David stayed a little bit longer. He discovered that we had paint that he could use to customize his shoes. He started coming more frequently to paint, have a snack, and get a bus ticket.
Eventually, we learned that, before finding New Urban Arts, he was accused of stealing a snack from another program, and he didn’t feel welcome back there. Now, it made sense; when you feel like you’ve been judged by an institution in the past—simply for seeking resources that are supposed to be free—it’s hard to trust other institutions. He wanted to know if New Urban Arts was really free.
Last year, one of David’s peers was shot near his school. Like many students, he was impacted in ways that we do not fully comprehend. In the days after the shooting, New Urban Arts opened our doors for extra hours to provide a safe space for students to process or just hang out. David spent several hours at New Urban Arts—longer than he’d ever stayed, and longer than many of his classmates—making art and hanging out. He also got a bus ticket. Now in his junior year, David comes two or three times a week.
New Urban Arts’ approach is unique. Other programs might have had more requirements for David to meet before receiving a service he needed. However, at New Urban Arts, we treat young people’s trust as something we need to earn—not something that we deserve. This meant that, on his first few visits, our actions had to tell David, “If you need that bus ticket more than you need to make art right now, we believe you, and you have agency in how you use the resources we offer.”
I wish you could see New Urban Arts right now; as I write this, there’s a quiet buzz, occasionally punctuated by loud laughter. Groups of students and mentors are clustered around the studio, drawing, painting, printing, sewing, and making music.
It’s a beautiful scene, a vital reminder of what’s possible in education—especially at this moment of uncertainty. You may have read the dire report on the Providence Public School District released by Johns Hopkins this summer. It paints a bleak picture, and it makes clear how much students need New Urban Arts. And donors like you allow us to provide this consistent, safe haven for our community’s young people.
Spurred by the report and ensuing investigations, the state began its takeover of the Providence Schools last week. We’re hopeful that this is an opportunity for the district’s educators and administrators, along with students, parents, community partners, and state officials, to turn things around. However, change will not come overnight, so young people need a place like New Urban Arts—now more than ever.
The Johns Hopkins report mentioned school culture and safety as particular concerns, and at New Urban Arts, we create an uncommonly supportive culture and a safe space. One of the key ways we do this is by prioritizing young people’s agency. David’s story is what this looks like in practice.
I am often asked how we’re able to do the work we do and how we’re able to keep our programs free to young people, particularly amidst growing enrollment. My answer is this: we have community members, like you, who believe in our young people and believe in what we do. Our approach endures because you share our vision of a world where educational spaces are safe, fun, supportive, and joyful, and where such spaces are available to ALL young people.
Daniel Schleifer, Executive Director