New collective aims to address inequities in Detroit youth art programs

Amongst rows of filled seats, Rick Sperling was amazed by the group in front of him. 

He compared a conference room of young and old, various races and backgrounds to the 1980s supergroup recording session of “We Are the World,” a charity single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. 

But this supergroup was not there to record a hit song, but rather to network and support the arts. 

Sperling had spent the last year creating Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts (DEYA) with co-founder Nafeesah Symonette, culminating this month in a summit at the University of Michigan Detroit Center. 

The summit served as the first meeting for the Detroit Youth Arts Providers Network, a collective of youth arts providers in the city. The network assists arts organizations and programs with visibility and access to resources, funding and opportunities. While DEYA helped organize the collective, arts organizations have full control of the network, said Sperling and Symonette. 

Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts co-founder Nafeesah Symonette hosts a session at a summit for youth arts organizations on Sept. 7, 2023 at the University of Michigan Detroit Center. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

“Just looking out…there are so many high quality youth arts providers in Detroit, but I’m just in awe of the people that we all have in the same room right here,” Sperling said. “We have an incredible sector that we can put up against any city in the country.” 

More than 40 providers are part of the new initiative, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Shakespeare in Detroit, the Detroit Youth Choir and the Sphinx Organization. 

Sperling said the idea for DEYA and the network stemmed from the pandemic and his role as the lead arts consultant for Detroit Public Schools Community District. When COVID-19 began, he created the DEYA fund and worked with 13 arts organizations to create an online initiative called RAMP-UP (Rigorous Arts Mentorship Program Under Pandemic). More than 50 arts mentors were paired up with around 200 students during the 2020-2021 school year. DPSCD provided $200,000 for the program, with Sperling and the arts organizations fundraising and receiving donations that totaled another $200,000, he said. 

After seeing how effective collaboration could be, Sperling knew he wanted to do more to help the youth arts sector in Detroit and turn DEYA into a collective initiative. During his 27-year tenure as founder and director of Mosaic Youth Theatre, an organization that trains young people in the performing arts, there were challenges in the arts space that he believed were too large to handle at the time. Among the barriers, he said, were children in Detroit not having the same level of access to programs like suburban children, lack of transportation and inequities in funding. 

Sperling connected with the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment Project (MAEIA), a Department of Education initiative that supports school districts, buildings, educators, and the public in implementing a high quality arts education program. That’s how he met Symonette, an adjunct professor at Oakland University and an ambassador and member of the Michigan Arts and Cultural Council. She was interested in tackling the same issues, saying conversations with colleagues on solving those problems never materialized into action. 

The two now operate DEYA as an arts organization under Connect Detroit, a nonprofit that helps Detroit-area organizations and governments work together and mobilize funding. 

“When we realized that this was such a deep passion for both of us, (Symonette) from more of the arts education side and me from the arts organization side, that we needed to co-found this together and that’s that’s the birth of it,” Sperling said. 

Added Symonette: “When Rick shared this with me, it was just one of those perfect storm kind of moments for me.” 

people sitting at tables talking to each other Youth arts providers talk with each other during an exercise at the Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts summit Sept. 7, 2023 at the University of Michigan Detroit Center. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Inequities persist in youth arts 

After deciding to operate DEYA together, Sperling and Symonette began a 12-month process last year to identify and build a Detroit youth collective. This resulted in a report titled “Powering Youth Arts Through Collective Action.” Through provider interviews, small group convenings and focus groups, one of the biggest things that stood out was that Detroit youth do not have equitable access to arts opportunities. Sperling said many kids participating in Detroit arts organizations live outside of the city. 

In the report, multiple providers stated that between 50 and 75% of the participants in their Detroit-based programs lived outside Detroit, not including kids from Highland Park and Hamtramck. 

“That doesn’t mean that we are saying that kids from Southfield and kids from Grosse Pointe who want to be part of things in Detroit are going to be excluded,” Sperling said. “But it means that the young people in the city, we need to focus on them because they’re the ones that are not taking advantage of these opportunities and getting the benefits of these opportunities.” 

Sperling and Symonette said the biggest barrier Detroit families experience is transportation. Almost 77% of providers said lack of transportation prevented children and teens from participating in after school programs or hindered their ability to get home, even if the program took place after school on school grounds, according to the report. 

Sperling said he talked to the city’s Office of Mobility Innovation about the issue and is hoping to work with the Youth Development Resource Center, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of Detroit-area youth organizations. But he said there are no easy solutions when it comes to providing transportation. 

“It was the No. 1 barrier that was listed, but at the same time, everyone acknowledges this is really hard to accomplish,” he said. 

Symonette pointed out that many arts organizations receive a better response and more funding from suburban schools to operate their in-school programming than public and charter schools in Detroit. 

“The lack of communication and response that they receive from schools inside the city to be able to get these programs up and running and the timeframe that they have set for the school year often doesn’t happen just because of the lack of responsiveness,” she said. 

In order to address a majority of the inequities DEYA highlighted in their report, Sperling and Symonette came up with six recommendations to create a more inclusive arts space in Detroit such as developing the art providers network, creating citywide peer networks for classroom arts teachers, youth, teaching artists and parent advocates and developing a citywide transportation system, which would include after school and weekends. 

DEYA is also planning a partnership with DPSCD to provide arts education at its schools, Sperling said. DEYA, along with its providers, will offer arts mentorships and artist residencies. The district’s arts office will identify teacher and student needs and match potential arts partners who can provide teaching artists. The district did not immediately comment on the partnership. 

When Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over DPSCD in 2017, he prioritized arts programs in elementary and middle school after many were cut when the district was under emergency management. To increase interest in the arts throughout the district, it hired more teachers in K-8 schools, invited students to attend performances at the high school, and offered students at feeder schools other opportunities to check out the district’s performing arts high school, the Detroit School of Arts, reported Chalkbeat. 

“One of the things that we really learned…is what a really phenomenal youth arts sector we have in Detroit and that really we can put that against any city in the country, even New York and LA,” he said. Something we’ve taken away from this process is that we need to let the world know and people right here of the incredible work that’s happening in Detroit.”

A network of support 

Karilú Forshee, who developed a passion for theater and the performing arts while growing up in Mexico, wanted to bring that same experience to the Latino community in Detroit. 

In 2019, Forshee founded La Carpa Theatre, a bilingual theater company inspired by the traveling tent shows that were popular during the Mexican Revolution. Youth ages 12-18 have the opportunity to write their own plays as well as portray historical Latino figures, such as comedian and actor Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno, tejano singer Selena and politician Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. 

Working primarily as a teaching artist, Forshee was unfamiliar with how to start her own company. She said it was difficult to secure grants on her own and many grant organizations preferred to give money to nonprofits. Forshee also lacked resources and support. 

Even after receiving funding from the Knight and Andy Warhol foundations and officially launching La Carpa in 2021, she still found it hard to maintain the program by herself.  

woman dressed like Frida Kahlo in front of an audience Anahys Hernandez, center, portrays artist Frida Kahlo during a La Carpa production at Plaza del Sol in southwest Detroit. (Courtesy photo from Karilú Forshee)

“For a period of time, I was doing a lot on my own, which was very draining,” she said. “But at the same time, I knew how important it was for this to actually happen.” 

Forshee has since partnered with the Detroit theater company A Host of People to help with the administration side of the business and fundraising. She believes arts organizations in Detroit, especially the smaller ones, don’t have the resources and funding they need and are barely surviving. 

“It’s just really hard. It puts everyone in this difficult position all the time about moving forward the work that we know matters and at the same time, the burn out or being disappointed on how rigid the systems are to have access to funding,” Forshee said. 

She hopes to find more resources and funding by joining the network, as well as chances for more collaboration. 

“Detroit has all of these brilliant people that are very passionate about the work done with the youth, so I’m hoping that we create a network where we support each other and try to break with the systems that are in place where we’re always competing to secure these grants that are available,” Forshee said. “I’m hoping that a network like this will push boundaries and will actually help strengthen all of us together because the work we do is so similar and important.” 

Michael Smith also faces funding challenges. He is the founder of Jit Masters, a Southfield-based dance school that offers child and adult lessons of the Detroit dance style. He said the company often has to fundraise for kids’ costumes and performances or he puts up his own money. Smith said he tries not to burden parents with extra costs as much as he can. 

“Being able to have some type of finances for the different things that we do with the youth…would be very helpful for our business,” he said. 

Michael Smith posing for a picture with his students Michael Smith, center, with kids from his Jit Masters dance studio. The organization provides youth and adult classes of the popular Detroit dance style. (Courtesy photo from Michael Smith)

Smith also noted that there are people from the east side of Detroit who are interested in joining Jit Masters, but are unable to travel to Southfield. 

With the help of the network, Smith hopes to open another location in Detroit and offer transportation services. Jit Masters is also expanding into music by offering Beat Lab classes on DJing and producing. Smith said a fellow provider in the network may have the extra DJ equipment he needs or phones and laptops. 

“It’s having an opportunity to just network, see where everybody’s strengths are and what they have to give to the network and go from there,” he said. “It’s a different plug of resources I didn’t have or they didn’t have.” 

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