All posts by Käthe Swaback

Listen Deeply, Move Boldly: How The Care Center Builds Community

The following piece originally appeared in Mass Cultural Council’s Power of Culture blog, and was written by Mina Kim, Käthe Swaback, and Timothea Pham.

Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

Inside an unassuming Victorian-era building, just west of downtown Holyoke, is one of the nation’s most distinctive creative community development initiatives: The Care Center. It is an example of what can happen when culture and creativity form the foundation to dismantle systemic barriers for individuals, as well as communities.

Enter The Care Center, and on every wall, there is art by the students. Poems that probe the multiplicity of humanity’s realities fill the hallways. Drawings, photographs, and paintings are thoughtfully arranged and reflect various facets of each individual’s personality, journey, or a moment in time. Reminders of upcoming deadlines with the Department of Transitional Services, illustrated alphabet posters for toddlers, and notices of upcoming events hang all around. Young women’s voices, sighs, exclamations, and laughter float through the building, as each is a part of a transformative effort that seeks to break the cycle of poverty.

The Care Center opened in 1986 with the mission to provide resources for teen mothers and their families. 100% of the women are from low-income households, and 94% are women of color. In a culture that stigmatizes teen pregnancy and condemns young mothers, in particular, young mothers of color, The Care Center offers a different model of working with these youth. “20 years ago, we made an intentional shift,” said Anne Teschner, Director of The Care Center, while describing the evolution of the Center’s program development. Over time it moved from a more traditional social service organization, toward one that embraces the power of arts, education, and culture to build a different support system that offers greater socioeconomic mobility.

Challenging Assumptions

“We meet the young woman where they’re at,” explained Jenna Sellers, Director of Support Services. Rather than merely trying to level the playing field, The Care Center understands each individual requires specialized care respective of varying personalities and experiences. Being aware of the multi-layered context young mothers face is important as well, as the labyrinth of obtaining public resources for teen mothers can be long and arduous. Teschner described the many conversations over the years she had with the Department of Transitional Assistance as she lobbied to allow young mothers on assistance to have access to higher education through the completion of the Associate Degree.

“There’s an assumption that if you live in poverty, you don’t need intellectual stimulation or cultural access and, at the worst, don’t deserve it,” Teschner said as she and Ana Rodriguez, Director of Education, discussed the stereotypes society holds with regard to who is worthy, and who is not. “It’s important that these girls are celebrated…that they feel they’re as good as anyone else,” Rodriguez added.

Young women rowing
“Rowing is like my second family; the first is The Care Center,” shares Crystal who serves as coxswain for the rowing team that is a part of Rowing Strong, Rowing Together, a partnership between The Care Center, Mount Holyoke College, and Holyoke Rows. “It’s a stress reliever that helps us let go of everything we’re holding onto as we work together and help each other,” adds fellow rower AJ. Teschner introduced rowing and a robust academic curriculum to The Care Center’s programming after reviewing the types of activities, classroom setting, and programming offered at many private schools across the U.S. (Image: The Care Center.)

Teschner is not afraid to blaze trails and carries the advice of, “allow yourself as an organization to be bold and on the edge of discovery. This is what really brings in the oxygen.” Back in 1993, Teschner took a deep breath and launched the YouthReach Initiative at the Mass Cultural Council, a first of its kind state grant program that supported creative youth development through a social justice lens. YouthReach recognizes youth as agents of change, understanding them as a resource and partner in creating healthy communities. This acknowledgment of youth as assets within their communities has carried on in Teschner’s work, as she has consistently pushed the boundaries of perceptions around underserved youth.

In 2016, the Center, together with Bard College, launched the first college for women whose studies have been cut short due to pregnancy or parenthood. Known as the Bard Microcollege Holyoke, women who graduate from this program receive an Associate of Arts degree. Students often enter the Microcollege after completing The Clemente Course in the Humanities, an award-winning program, developed by Bard College and supported by Mass Humanities, that enables underserved and marginalized individuals to receive college credits while being introduced to works of literature, moral philosophy, art history, and critical thinking and writing. Both programs act as a gateway toward the pursuit of higher education, as is evident in The Care Center’s statistics.

On average, 95% of Care Center graduates are first in their families to attend college. 75% of Care Center graduates enroll in college, which is more than the 43% of students who graduate from high school nationally. The Microcollege, which during its 2016 inaugural session enrolled 10 students, now has 45. 100% of the College’s first cohort have graduated with an Associate’s Degree and have also gone on to pursue further studies at 4-year colleges including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and The Elms College.

“We had a culture where young moms were being pushed out of public education…The Care Center filled a real void in the community in terms of making sure all of Holyoke’s young people have access to a good quality education,” said Mayor of Holyoke Alex Morse while speaking of The Care Center’s unique model.

Painting of a woman's torso covered in flowers, her arms holding an infant lying on her belly.
Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

At the Care Center, high expectations around academic excellence go together with providing systems of support tailored for young mothers. Day care is offered for newborns and toddlers, along with early childhood education that promotes early literacy from a young age. Door-to-door transportation is provided to teen mothers to ensure every student has a ride to classes, medical appointments, and area services. An on-site nurse practitioner provides care five mornings a week, in addition to the support and transition counselors that guide the young women through personal and academic hurdles, including challenges endured by first-generation college students.

Creativity as a Gateway to Connection

Photos in the Care Center’s art studio depicting different masks for an art project exploring archetypes.

Arts, culture, and creativity play an integral role in the development of these young women, as art teacher Julie Lichtenberg noted, “The arts allow you to think inward and reflect…to be bigger than this moment.” Exploring archetypes in art studio, youth explore concepts of universal humanity and identity by creating masks that incorporate various patterns and materials reflective of select archetypes. Poetry has a deep and expansive presence at The Care Center, too. Students comprise the Editorial Board of Nautilus, an anthology of poems published by Care Center young women who draw inspiration from themselves, as well as renowned writers and poets who hold workshops and readings at The Care Center, such as Nikky Finney, Lesléa Newman, Junot Díaz, and Robert Pinsky. Remarking on the accessibility of poetry as an art form with the capacity to shift perspectives, Teschner said, “Poetry allows students access into the power of words and their own untapped capacity as writers. They’re able to take on a new role and become a part of the long public dialogue on the human experience.”

Being able to be a part of the “long public dialogue” is perhaps one of the most important takeaways of The Care Center and is key to the mothers being able to connect to oneself, each other, and to their broader community. Rodriguez shared, “The students serve as translators for each other while they’re at The Care Center.” AJ, Crystal, and fellow Care Center classmate, Tessa, emphasized the familial bonds shared among the young women, where youth feel safe to be themselves and are supported by staff who genuinely care. The girls belong to text groups with other Care Center women who offer each other words of encouragement and advice through various stages of their Care Center experience, whether they just started taking a computer class, or have graduated from the Microcollege. Care Center alumni who are at nearby colleges return to offer guidance or tutoring assistance, or to receive support and help themselves, both of which they know are always available to them.

The Roots of a Community

“Art and creativity is at the center of a lot of what we do, and that means not just thinking about visual arts, photography, or things that people can see…It starts with a focus on public education, and integrating arts into public education so that the extent of our success isn’t defined by our ability to attract artists from out of town [but developing] a pipeline of artists of local people that are representative of our constituencies of people, and making sure our current students are our future artists, creatives, and makers in the community.”

— Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke

The reach of The Care Center extends to spaces and people beyond the immediate building, as the Center is an active, creative hub in Holyoke and part of a larger network of teachers and artists from all over the Northeast, but especially those from Western Massachusetts. Instructors and faculty from area colleges run math and science programs through the Hypatia Institute. Students attend Humanities 108 sponsored by Greenfield Community College in a program developed to introduce a college-level course for youth preparing for the High School Equivalency exam. The Smith College Poetry Center works with The Care Center to build its robust visiting poets program, while Hampshire College offers access to its photography and film facility. And even though it may seem the bulk of The Care Center’s attention is focused on expecting and teen mothers, the organization shares its education, health, and cultural resources with other underserved women in Holyoke, as well as with area youth. For example, The Care Center (now in partnership with the Performance Project) has run the Teen Resource Project, an after-school creative youth development program for at-risk teens in partnership with the Holyoke Public Schools for over 30 years.

More recently, Way Finders, an affordable housing developer based in Springfield, broke ground on a new project, the Library Commons, a mixed-use development featuring 38 residential units for households at 60% or higher of the area median income, along with retail and cultural spaces. The Library Commons sits a few blocks south of The Care Center, near the Holyoke Public Library, and will include space dedicated to arts and culture programs at Roqué House. Named after Puerto Rican educator and suffragist Ana Roqué de Duprey, Roqué House hopes to further change ideas around who has a right to affordable and safe housing, as well as the pursuit of education, creativity, and self-fulfillment. Ten of the two- to three-bedroom units within the Library Commons will house teen parents who are enrolled in post-secondary education programs, while The Care Center will manage educational and cultural offerings, counseling, an artist-in-residence program, and additional ancillary support services to residents of the Commons.

First Lady Michelle Obama awarding the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to representatives from The Care Center.
The Care Center is a recipient of the 2011 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor recognizing community-based arts and humanities youth programs in the United States, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (Image: The Care Center)

“We joke that we cracked the code. A combination of high expectations, a matter-of-fact attitude toward success, and support works. We see the shift in the young women who come to The Care Center. It’s a posture change, a look in the eyes, an honest change in the way they look at the world,” Teschner said. Indeed, this ethos around high expectations and thinking beyond what exists is palpable within The Care Center, as well as city government, both entities which have examined what it means to integrate creativity and community.

This through-line between The Care Center and the city is evident in the close relationship shared between Care Center staff and numerous city departments, as well as in the sentiments expressed by youth.

“Holyoke is a city that cares about its people,” Tessa shared as she spoke of the rarity in finding a place like The Care Center that helps “make everything possible.” It’s also reflective of what can happen when organizations listen deeply, identify obstacles, and both courageously and creatively find solutions in partnership with other entities that share a common goal: a goal of developing a supportive city that truly invests in its community.

When asked to try and sum up all they had gained from being at The Care Center, Tessa (age 16), AJ (age 22), and Crystal (age 19) responded, with the following three statements:

“I have understanding.”

“I know I am capable.”

“I am successful.”

These outcomes reflect Teschner’s vision that includes the advice of, “Don’t be afraid to articulate your needs and vision. Be bold.” Following this advice has allowed so many young women to bring their dreams to fruition. These strengthened lives have also resulted in collective changes in our communities and inspire us all to take those next steps forward with passion and purpose in building brave futures together.

Announcing 2020 Amplify Grants

Berkshire Pulse performance
Berkshire Pulse performance

Mass Cultural Council is proud to award 15 new Amplify grants for 2020 totaling $22,500. Directed to projects designed and executed by young people in programs receiving YouthReach or SerHacer funding, Amplify furthers the Commonwealth’s investment in youth leadership and empowerment.

The Amplify grant process incorporates youth voice throughout, including the participation of young professionals and program alums in the panel review. This unique approach ensures that the Amplify program continues to strive not just for the highest quality and innovation in programming, but to naturally and actively incorporate youth leadership in its rightful role in cultural provision across the state of Massachusetts.

Congratulations to this year’s Amplify recipients:

Ballet Rox, Boston
Individuals who come from various cultural backgrounds such as Vietnam, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Ireland, are all part of BalletRox. To celebrate this diversity, teens will work to investigate dances from these cultures, understand their uniqueness, and then work to incorporate every culture into one dance piece. They will showcase different styles of dances that expresses who they are and where they come from by preforming at the Earth Festival and Dance for World Community.

Berkshire Pulse, Inc., Great Barrington
The Berkshire Pulse Young Choreographers Initiative will be choreographing a dance around the topic of body image and will showcase it in two culminating events. The process will include different sections that will be choreographed by each of the Youth Project Leaders working with other teen intermediate level students as well as dancers ranging in ages 30-60 from the community, in order to more comprehensively understand how this topic affects people of all ages.

Elevated Thought, Lawrence
Teens will create a “Housing Initiative” documentary and build connections through their voice and platform as they work with their community to creatively analyze and address housing instability for young people.

Enchanted Circle Theater, Holyoke
Young people will lead spoken word, dance/movement, music, poetry, and other creative arts to express personal stories about their experience in foster care and adoption. The HEROES Youth Truth is a creative arts and media performance ensemble focused on creating awareness and positive change for foster and adoptive kids.

Express YourselfBeverly
Utilizing multiple art forms, including songwriting, stop motion animation, claymation and set design, youth leaders will collaborate to create an original animated short film and theme song for Express Yourself’s annual exhibition gala at Endicott College. Themes will educate the public about the realities of what youth experience who have mental health issues.

GreenRoots, Inc., Chelsea
The ECO Youth Crew will provide new white sneakers, a variety of art supplies, and inspiration at their Kustomize Your Kicks event. ECO will outreach to their peers, offer a fun creative night that will provide teens with new sneakers for those who need them, and connect those who are interested to the important work in environmental justice.

Mystic Learning Center, Somerville
Youth Peer Leader, Andrine, will plan curricula and host a series of writing and community organizing workshops for teens at the Mystic Learning Center. She also will help other teens to plan, host, and present their own original work in Books of Hope’s annual Somerville Youth Arts Festival and at the Mystic Housing Development.

New Bedford Whaling Museum High School Apprenticeship Program, New Bedford
Young people will educate and inspire people to take action around the United Nation’s Life Under Water Sustainable Development Goal by working with organizations and other youth who will focus on a one-day marine area clean-up in New Bedford.

New England Aquarium, Boston
Through a partnership between the New England Aquarium ClimaTeens and the Institute of Contemporary Art teens, young people will create artwork on the issues of climate change and display it on World Oceans Day at the New England Aquarium. The exhibit will educate Boston area youth to advocate for climate action and demand climate change in our communities.

The Performance Project, Springfield
Young artist, Joalis, will create a mixed-media exploration of her city entitled, “A Vision of Holyoke.” Through the eyes of a young person, using the mediums of drawing, painting and photography, the community exhibit will focus on people and places that are familiar and unique to Holyoke.

Raw Art Works, Lynn
Young men of color in RAW’s leadership program, RAW Chiefs, will create a sculpture entitled, “Talk About It.” In creating art in Lynn, and exhibiting the art in South Hamilton, it will inspire others to explore themes of immigration, injustice, and separation, and hopefully have the courage to talk about difficult injustices in their own lives.

Sociedad Latina, Boston
Two Youth Artists will organize and lead an open mic series, The Raíces (Roots), in the Youth Arts Mastery Program for youth and community. A “Question & Answer” session with renowned Latino guest artists will help guide a themed discussion centered around a social justice issue chosen by our Youth Artists.

South End Technology Center @ Tent City, Boston
Teens will design the project, #MakingLiberation with the Local Voices Network & Everyday Boston to explore a social justice issue important to them. Through facilitated and recorded conversations, their feelings and ideas will be seen through the creation of interactive art, performance, and through a technology project exhibited in three venues.

Worcester Chamber Music Society, Inc., Worcester
Teens will find inspiration as they educate themselves about Baroque music. Along with learning how to play and perform with greater expertise, they will also take a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts to study the historical instruments. They will actively inspire others as well through the design and presentation of a workshop and a concert for their younger peers involved in WCMS and their community.

Worcester Youth Center, Worcester
Five youth leaders will plan, recruit, and offer a monthly series of talent shows. This program will allow organizers to practice and strengthen their organization skills, as well as give talent show participants an opportunity to showcase creative talents to the community.

Massachusetts Youth Arts Leaders Take the Stage

Mass Cultural Council was proud to support and further learn from our Massachusetts organizations who attended the 2019 National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference in Austin, TX.  With conference goals rooted in social justice and designed to showcase innovative strategies for advancing the work, Massachusetts leaders took to the stage.

Sadira Bethae presenting at National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference
Sadira Bethae presenting at National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference
Slide detailing definition of Adultism
Slide detailing definition of Adultism

Sadira Bethea is a college freshman with a passion for community empowerment. As an alumni of the Community Art Center in Cambridge, she co-led an on-site institute, entitled, Youth in the Lead: a Youth Development Approach for Engagement with Laurie Jo Wallace. As Managing Director of Health Resources in Action,​ Laurie Jo has spent the last 27 years promoting healthy communities and healthy youth in Boston through initiatives such as co-developing and promoting the research-based Advancing Youth Development Curriculum and the BEST (Building Exemplary Systems of Training for Youth Workers).

Both presented through warm-ups and research on how community-based arts programming can truly support youth leadership when “adultism” can be left behind.​ Sadira illustrated how adults can become more like accomplices with young people as they offer leadership opportunities to support youth in developing their strong identities, creativity, and connections. She also wowed the audience by using the new digital presentation tool of Menti (www.menti.com)!

Lisa Donovan presenting at National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference
Lisa Donovan presenting at National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference
Massachusetts representatives at the Guild's conference (l-r): Lisa Donovan, Kim Roberts Morandi, Miranda Aisling, and Käthe Swaback
Massachusetts representatives at the Guild’s conference (l-r): Lisa Donovan, Kim Roberts Morandi, Miranda Aisling, and Käthe Swaback.

Lisa Donovan, Ph.D, (professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and Kim Roberts Morandi (Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the North Adams Public Schools) spoke eloquently on how arts can be a strategy for regional change, in their presentation, Think Like A Region: Supporting Arts Learning in Rural/Remote Regions. As co-directors of the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network, they have devised dynamic professional development along with proven models and strategies  in order to help their communities gain access to arts education through regional network development.

After they discussed ways to effectively leverage change and maximize impact to an inspired audience, attendees were able to create mapping for their own projects and visions based on a “Yellow Brick Road” tool designed by Americans for the Arts. (Watch Lisa’s TED Talk and listen to her on our podcast. ) BRAINworks is part of a larger regional initiative (Creative Compact for Collective Impact) that includes the development and launch of the Berkshire Blueprint for Arts Integration and Education and a vibrant network for cultural organizations – Berkshire Cultural Assets Network. Learn more about BRAINworks, a portal for arts education in Berkshire County.

Also in attendance was Miranda Aisling, founder of Miranda’s Hearth. She is addressing the challenge of developing affordable and sustainable creative workspace, which is at an all-time low throughout Eastern Massachusetts. She has submitted a proposal to repurpose the Briscoe Middle School in Beverly MA as BevArt: The Beverly Arts Community Center. This proposal is the culmination of years of research, planning, and advocating, including qualitative interviews with over 140 Beverly stakeholders. More than 240 artists filled out a survey demonstrating their desire to rent studio space at BevArt in just six weeks. These responses included artist alums of YouthReach. If her proposal is selected, her project would create the largest community arts center on the North Shore and one of the largest in Massachusetts. #BevArt

Thank you National Guild for Community Arts Education for providing 3+ days of connection, ideas, inspiration, and providing opportunities to showcase the power of culture with the vision and leadership of Massachusetts.

Amplify Grants Now Available

Express Yourself performance featuring parisols made by Rachel, an Amplify grant recipient. Photo by Mike Dean.

We are pleased to announce that Amplify grants are now available for 2020. Amplify provides up to $1,500 for projects designed and executed by young people currently supported by Mass Cultural Council’s YouthReach and SerHacer programs. The Amplify grant process incorporates youth voice throughout, including the participation of young professionals and program alums in the panel review.

The grant supports projects that take place from January 1 – June 30, 2020. Applications are due December 2, 2019. Review the slides from our information session to learn more.

Get inspired by previously funded projects from 2019, 2018, or 2017.

Questions? Contact Käthe Swaback at 617-858-2717.

The Long Reach of YouthReach

Beyond Walls and RAW artists worked together to create portions of this mural on Boys and Girls Club of Lynn buildingRaw Art Works alum, Michael Aghahowa graduated from Montserrat College of Art and has recently created two murals in Lynn.  Beyond Walls chose Michael as one of the locally and internationally renowned artists who produced large scale pieces of public art. With the spirit of YouthReach, Michael also worked with young people to complete a mural about their pride in their neighborhood.

The young men of Raw Art Works‘ Good 2 Go Program also worked with artist, @celsoart, to complete an entire side of the Boys and Girls Club of Lynn with a beautiful mosaic mural.