UofC Helps Teens Make Green Spaces Open for Performance and Play on South Side

Twenty Chicago teens this summer set to work creating a small community park at the corner of Garfield Boulevard and Prairie Avenue, which they hope will become a place for people to watch performances, read and play.

The Design Apprenticeship Program, part of University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator, is located near Washington Park on the South Side and is intended to partly offset budget cuts that have gutted many arts programs across the city. Hit especially hard in tough fiscal times are the South and West Sides, often meaning children who studies show would gain – enormously – from arts programs, are left out.

Students​ build furniture which will be used in a pavilion they designed/Photo by Nate Swartz
Students​ build furniture which will be used in a pavilion they designed/Photo by Nate Swartz

The DAP program began just over one year ago in April 2013 and partners with After School Matters, an organization that acts as a bridge between Chicago students and after school programs, jobs and internships. DAP’s summer program lasted six weeks, ending on July 31.

DAP has doubled in size since last year, going from 10 to 20 students in each session, and hiring on an additional instructor. This summer, DAP is split into two separate programs, each with one instructor, to make sure the woodshop doesn’t get overcrowded.

The program accepts teens between the ages of 14 and 18 who live in Chicago. DAP’s program manager, Miguel Aguilar, said in past sessions many students lived nearby, but the program has become more geographically diverse, including students from the Near North Side and downtown.

Students also have a wide range of abilities. Some enter the program with no design or woodworking experience, while others may have gone through grammar school woodshop or come from a performing arts school, Aguilar said. There is no requirement for experience to get into the program.

DAP aims to encourage teens and young adults to invest in their own communities through art and design, according to the program website, with a focus on creative problem solving.

“Like everyone had to design a seating and then we decided to pick two of the best and some people wanted to do individual and some people wanted to pick two, and then we had to vote on two different designs,” said Keshonda Bush, a soft-spoken 14-year-old. Bush got involved with the program after working on a game room at her old middle school.

One instructor, Grace Needlman, 25, said Bush has become quite the manager. Needlman also works with the Teen Creative Agency at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“My group, like some people like really quiet, like they don’t speak up and then some people, they take long, like I just gotta be there to support them,” Bush said. “I would love to see how they work without me in their group when we go back upstairs.”

As much as Needlman and Bush enjoy creating functional art for the community, some of their favorite aspects of DAP involve the relationships that are built there.

“I’ve had really good conversations with people, really challenging conversations about what art is, which I always really enjoy with a group of people who are very serious and thoughtful and critical,” Needlman said. She said she loves “when someone says something really intense, like we’re looking at a drawing or something and someone says, ‘this looks like war,’ and I’m like, ‘yes!’”

Aguilar agreed, saying that they buy students lunch once a week so that they can spend more time together.

The Design Apprenticeship Program is housed in a renovated 1920s building in Washington Park.
The Design Apprenticeship Program is housed in a renovated 1920s building in Washington Park.

“To see those casual conversations of both programs talking to each other, different personalities coming out in a casual environment during lunch, those are the kinds of moments I feel really good about,” he said.

The program’s current project will bring some green space to a commercial district, as the students and their instructors create a multipurpose park across the street from the Incubator, including a concrete pavilion.

Arts education offers many benefits, according to a 2005 study by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy think thank. The study found that arts education could improve test scores, behavioral skills and “intrinsic benefits” that can spill over into the community, such as an “expanded capacity for empathy.”

“There’s this beautiful responsibility and empathy within the conversations that the groups have been having around creating a space that is obviously open and accessible to everyone, but has the sort of joyful experiences of people who maybe don’t feel comfortable in other places,” Needlman said, recalling how students suggested offering priority seating for mothers, children and elderly residents. “The vibe I’m getting from the group is very much a place of rest and play and somewhere you’d wanna hang out for a while…like summer afternoons.”

The program also points students towards the future, with workshops on college or with the Incubator’s resident artists.

One artist “came and spoke to us about how he used the things that he find outside on the street to make artwork, and that’s like kind of resourceful and good,” Bush said. “That’s kind of interesting.”

Bush, who hopes to attend either Georgia State University or University of Chicago after graduation, said the program has also made her rethink what she wants to do when she grows up.

“Like I never thought I wanted to be an engineer,” she said. “Well my plan B is to be, like an engineer or something around that.” Plan A? “I wanna be a psychologist…I feel like I can help, not troubled people but like people in need, like try to help people rethink things in a positive way.”

Needlman said she’s seen Bush bring some of these skills into the program.

“Like always thinking about who is this design helping, how can we reframe this really positively, I think that’s always been your role in the group, which is cool,” she told Bush.

Bush has also enjoyed working with adults.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, I get what they’re saying,’ they’re older than me so it makes me feel kinda like, not smarter, that I’m smart, but more able to pick up things,” she said.

With difficult financial times for Chicago Public Schools, arts education is increasingly up for grabs. A recent survey of 170 CPS schools by Raise Your Hand Illinois found that 14 percent of schools don’t have any arts instruction and 65 percent don’t offer the required two hours of arts education each week.

On July 16, CPS held three meetings to discuss its most recent budget proposal, a $5.76 billion plan that includes $67 million in cuts for neighborhood schools. The cuts are attributed to changing enrollment numbers.

DAP’s location is also key, as a report released by Ingenuity, Inc., a Chicago advocacy group for arts education, found that art instructors are unevenly distributed. CPS also relies heavily on 2,439 different programs provided by community partners, but most are concentrated on the North Side.

DAP, which does not partner with the district, offers students another outlet for creativity in a neighborhood with between 11 and 20 community partners, compared with more than 50 programs in neighborhoods like the Near West Side and Irving Park.

DAP students were putting together stools and couches in mid-July to be used in the park. Bush said their designs will be unique. One stool was made so that a child can run through its legs while a parent is sitting on it. The students worked outdoors under a clear, blue sky one day last monto, learning how to sand the furniture as their gravel lot stood empty and waiting across the street.

“I really like the moments after like we have a really intense or logistical conversation, like what are the next steps, how are we going to get there, when everybody like breaks off into groups and starts doing stuff, and just the energy of that moment,” Needlman said. “It just shoots out into action.”

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