This article first appeared in Colorado Music Buzz, May 2015.
Denver Housing Authority, Youth On Record Work To Create Music Studio For Under-Served Youth
by Tim Wenger
Many in the inner-city Denver community, especially those with children, have become familiar with Youth On Record, a local non-profit that connects at-risk youth to music education. The organization was originally dubbed Flobots.org, started by Denver hip hop group Flobots as a way to give back to their community. At 3 PM on May 15, Youth On Record will host an open house showcasing their brand new, state-of-the-art youth media studio at 1301 W. 10th Ave in Denver.
The organization was launched in 2007 and has grown from current and former Flobots members Jonny5, Brer Rabbit and Andy Rok teaching and performing in Denver school classrooms to a full-fledged non-profit seeking to empower the community’s at-risk youth through music and creative education. “Originally, we had started the organization as a way to help the community,” says Rok, a former Flobot and founding member of the organization. Rok and the crew worked with at-risk youth to improve their skills and confidence in song writing, recording, performing, and other aspects of the art. “We found that we always knew music was really powerful, but to see it have an effect on these kids that really need it the most is amazing.”
A successful Youth On Record experience takes an at-risk teenager and puts him or her back on track to graduating from high school and pursuing a college or career pathway that they are excited about. The organization is currently working with six alternative schools and two youth residential treatment facilities serving 700 at-risk Denver students per year. Their concept employs musicians and other artists to teach, encourage, work with, and motivate students to use art to create positive energy and employing that energy to a continued education and eventually a career path in the arts field.
These days, the organization has full-time staff members, and eclectic Board of Directors, and works with hundreds of kids each year. “A lot of people talk about college and career as, this is where you need to go,” says Youth On Record Executive Director Jami Duffy. “Especially when they talk about career. It’s ‘Ok, we want to get you a job in manufacturing, or one of multiple fields that our young people aren’t terribly excited about. We are excited about the creative industries and we are trying to get them on the path to get jobs in Colorado’s creative industries.”
On May 15, Youth On Record will unveil their brand new 5000 square foot youth media studio at 1301 W. 10th Avenue in Denver’s La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood. The event, running from 3 PM-7PM, will give the community an opportunity to experience a top-line recording studio and classroom/learning areas, la poetry kiosk, isten to live music, and learn about the opportunities Youth On Record is offering to at-risk youth in Denver.
“We started three years ago with this wild idea that we wanted to build a state-of-the-art youth media facility,” says Duffy. “So that kids could learn not only from the best musicians in the state, but on top of the line equipment.” The idea is to take these at-risk youth and put them on the forefront of competitiveness as they look towards college and/or career choices.
The organization received their first initial investment for the new studio from the Denver Housing Authority. Over the past three years Youth On Record has secured support from numerous private as well as corporate donors to raise the funds needed to build the studio. Because their spot is located below residential units, the housing authority needed to be a key player in order to bring this concept to life. The DHA took interest in the project as a key move in maintaining the artistic integrity of one of Denver’s most historic neighborhoods as it evolves to become more modern. “One of the community goals for the Mariposa district was to honor the history and culture of the neighborhood here,” says Ismael Guerrero, Executive Director of the Denver Housing Authority. “So knowing that we are going to be tearing down a lot of the old housing, there was a genuine concern that the neighborhood would lose its identity as the ‘West Side,’ of a primarily Chicano community. One of the ways they saw to not lose the history and the culture, and those values was for it to be an art-centric community.
“With Youth On Record, what we loved was that they hit on three things. It was art-centric, the music and that expressive art form. They focus on youth at risk. For us, number one indicator of economic sufficiency for youth is their academic success. If we want to break the cycles of generational poverty, we’ve got to get that next generation to finish school and not become our next generation of residents living in subsidized housing.”
The DHA also believes that art and self-expression through music is good for the overall health of the neighborhood’s residents. With Youth On Record providing access to that form of expression, Guerrero believes the well-being of the neighborhood will increase. “Our folks come from a high anxiety, high stress, almost toxic neighborhood environment,” says Guerrero. “This is really a cure for a lot of that. A lot of what we’re doing in the Mariposa district is about health.”
Residents of the area and a group of community advisors have maintained a large say in how new developments in the district are funded and built. “In any programming that we do, it has a self-sufficiency angle,” Guerrero says. “For people who are living in public housing, subsidized housing, or just low income, how do we help them become more self-sufficient? We want art not just for the sake of art, but art for the sake of economic self-sufficiency. Those two have to come together.”
Despite this, some long-term residents of the area are weary of gentrification in their neighborhood as they watch new, modern buildings replace the structures they grew up with. This is an issue the DHA takes seriously and is a big part of why they work so hard to keep the community involved in their projects. “Change is always scary,” says Guerrero. “Because we’re not done, there is still concerns. I would say that there is less (negativity) at the Mariposa district, with what we are doing here and and have planned for and been intentional about. More I think where we are seeing the pressures and challenges is in the surrounding neighborhood.”
As the area becomes a more attractive place to live, property values rise. This leads to higher property taxes, which can lead to higher rent. “It can be a challenge for longer term residents, especially if they are on fixed incomes,” Guerrero says. “How do you keep up with that extra cost?”
Affordable housing is part of their plan, and the DHA is working with like-minded non-profits and other organizations to ensure residents are not driven out of the neighborhood.
As part of the Denver Housing Authority’s commitment to community, they asked the architect of each new building project what aspect of their building idea will be a committed community resource. In the case of the project at 1301 W. 10th Ave., the Youth Media Studio fit the bill. “The housing authority is so committed to community,” says Duffy. “They asked for architecture firms to apply to design each phase. We had good friends at an architecture firm who applied to design the whole building.”
The original architectural firm that put in a bid on the project and planned to work with Youth On Record was not shortlisted for the project, but asked the Denver Housing Authority to consider the studio as the community outreach project to be housed in the building anyway, even without them. “I had worked with the architecture firm to write the proposal,” Duffy says. “We were thrilled that the (Denver Housing Authority) was so excited about it. We signed some paperwork and were able to get going, and that initial investment was the seed that we needed to get this going.”
The concept and build-out of the youth media studio and the partnership with Denver Housing Authority has been so well received that the director of Denver Housing Authority and Youth On Record have been asked twice now to present in Washington, D.C. about the project and the model used to make the dream a reality. “Denver Housing Authority/Youth On Record is considered a new national model for partnerships within a community that really affect change on the youth population,” says Duffy.
Because of the recognition they are receiving, Youth On Record and the DHA are in a research and development phase seeking to have a streamlined model of their project for other cities to incorporate into future building projects. “We’re working at and looking into some mayor’s offices that have interest, school districts that have interest, and musician populations who have interested,” Duffy says. “For us to expand we have a committee now looking at who are we going to roll out with next.” Priority number one in making this decision is analyzing the number of high-risk youths in the area and how many will be able to benefit from the project. “High need for us means we have a high dropout rate and a high level of youth incarceration. For us and this neighborhood, when they started doing the feasibility study there was a 12% on-time high school graduation rate.”
For Duffy and the rest of the organization, the work they do for the students does not stop after high school. Jobs in the arts and in music specifically are notoriously hard to come by, and even harder to make a solid living at. Youth On Record addresses this issue head on. “What we try to explain to the students is multiple things,” Duffy says. “A, we can’t be more invested in their futures than they are. They are going to have to show the grit, the resilience, the determination of any of the artists in this town. That’s what they are able to see within their own teachers, that this is a struggle.” The students are taught that to have a career in the arts, they will have to approach their work from many angles. Whether it is teaching lessons, working in a recording studio, touring, or lecturing at universities, a career in the arts is not an easy thing to accomplish. Students at Youth On Record are taught that by keeping their head down and working hard, it can be done.
It is this belief system and model for youth empowerment that is attracting national attention. “We know that what we’re doing deserves to be replicated, and I believe that we have a moral responsibility to replicate it,” Duffy says.
“What excites me is having something that works here that has impacts across different areas,” says Guerrero. “Education, youth, community building. Arts and health. Rather than somebody else having to go through the brain damage of creating something similar, we need to learn how in the non-profit world, how to take good ideas to scale and not have to re-create the wheel. Being able to take what we’ve done here and export it to another community.”
“We have, for the first time in the United States history, a generation that will be less educated than their parents. We have an American drop-out crisis, and Youth On Record has found a model that is working. Not only are we reaching some of the most at-risk, underserved, disenfranchised young people, we are also employing artists at the same time. We’ve chosen education as an American issue, and also employing artists and allowing them to be thriving members of the community.”