In 2011, a group of six artists, educators, and activists started meeting, carrying the burdens of the slashing of arts programming, educational inequity, and increasing crime and school dropout rates. We discussed the problems that youth were facing as many schools in the systemically divested parts of the region were losing accreditation. We discussed the reality that artists were facing the decline of opportunities within their skills and passions, and that the arts were becoming increasingly marginalized. Months of discussions, counsel, research, and prayer led us to starting an organization that would address these issues. We wanted to provide today’s students with not only the same opportunities and education in the arts that we enjoyed, but also with positive relationships with people willing to share their skills. We wanted to make work available for artists who spent their lives committed to creating beauty, telling stories, and reclaiming our world. We wanted to show society that the arts are inherently necessary to an equitable, thriving society. We wanted to live the truth that all students of every ethnicity and economic status are owed equal opportunity to a well-rounded, high quality education.
Freedom Arts was officially founded in 2012 by this team of likeminded artists, educators, and organizers who wanted to make a positive impact in St. Louis by advocating for the arts, providing academic enrichment, and making opportunities available to children living in systemically under-resourced areas. We started out by developing a curriculum of unique art workshops that would appeal to the way 21st Century students think and communicate. From writing raps and drumming on buckets, to spray paint art and hip hop dance, to spoken word poetry and writing blues songs, we set out to build an equitable support system of education for young people and work for artists.
Our first event was in the summer of 2012 at a park in mid St. Louis county for an outdoor church service in which we combined bucket drumming with African dance styles. We deepened our collaboration with that church and started offering recurring arts workshops to children involved in the inner city ministry. Within the next year, the church entered a transitional season and the new director of the inner city ministry joined the staff of Freedom Arts. With the blessing and support of the church, Freedom Arts “adopted” this group of about twenty children living in the northwest end of St. Louis City and began focusing our time and resources with them. We launched our weekly after school tutoring program around this time to equip and empower our scholars to succeed in school. We quickly saw positive results: all academic skills were drastically improving, particularly literacy and math. Homework was being completed and turned in. The results were better grades and behavior in school. Our team was building authentic and positive relationships with our scholars and their families and a truly intentional community was coming together.
At the same time, our staff was receiving training in nonprofit development, arts management, social work, and trauma informed teaching. Our arts workshops were garnering support from other organizations and we were able to fund our onsite programs with our scholars through the contracting of our workshops. Our network of teaching artists was growing and many were eager to join our team and pass on their skills to the next generation. Our programs reached viable points and we were able to expand and serve the growing goals of our community. After conducting programming in the St. Louis area for a year and a half, we were approved for 501(c)(3) tax exemption, making the organization a nonprofit public charity.
Since we started in 2012, we have seen a powerful impact with our scholars through our onsite programs. Through our academic programs, mental math fluency has drastically improved, reading skills have gone from below grade level to 100% at grade level and 30% above grade level. Homework is being completed, suspensions are down, and they are no longer being held back from advancing grades. Artistically, our scholars have performed for hundreds and had work on display in major St. Louis institutions. Through our multi-discipline arts programs, they are finding their individual voices through music, poetry, dance, theater, and visual art. Through our advancement programs, our scholars are serving their communities, learning healthy coping and conflict resolution strategies, discovering their God-given identities, and even getting jobs and opening banks accounts.
The Freedom Arts team is diverse in strengths, creative in execution, and unified in mission. We are artists and educators who create, teach, perform, and build. We are committed to showing up, pouring out, and constantly reflecting on and refining our efforts. We are highly educated and deeply dedicated to seeing equity and quality in the arts and academics for all students, specifically those from systemically under-resourced communities. We believe all children can advance when given equal opportunity. We work with, not for, our youth scholar-artists, and are committed to us all becoming highly creative, literate, passionate, independent thinkers who thrive in living in genuine community. We have answered the God-given call to be proactive in creating opportunities for and sharing resources with each other, specifically the youth and those who fight for them. We believe we are all united by one Creator, and under that truth, our conflicting divisions can become collective power bringing us all true, wholistic liberation.
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