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Interview: Kathleen Warren, Urban Artworks Director

We sat down with the Director of Urban Artworks, Kathleen Warren, to understand more about Urban Artworks-- their mission and how they empower youth.  

"Give the kid a brush, she paints for a day; give her the address of the permitting office, she runs for mayor!" 


Can you tell us a little about how Urban Artworks was started?

Urban ArtWorks was started over 20 years ago. The neighborhood where it all began is called SODO (which at the time stood for South of the Dome (RIP King Dome) but now is beloved as South of Downtown) is an industrial zone, but because no one called it home, there wasn't really a champion of the area to help keep it clean and beautiful. This all changed when our Founder, Mike Peringer, a local business owner in SODO, organized a neighborhood clean-up day. Where along with business owners and industrial workers cleaning up trash, teens in social service programs were recruited to install murals in place of the vandalism that existed. It was one of those things you don't know you need until you see it work… and from that moment the idea to form as a year-round program was born. A program where teens, artists and business can work together to make Seattle safer and more colorful. (Initially called Panels for Progress but changed to Urban ArtWorks a few years later).


Urban Artworks

What role does Urban Artworks (UA) play in affecting positive change in the Puget Sound area?


As we grow and change I continuously notice the unspoken ways that we affect positive change in our region. Whether it's sharing paints, projectors, ladders from our materials library or teaching a neighborhood how to plan their own mural making volunteer day - we pride ourselves in being a resource of knowledge and supplies and love sharing everything we have! It always comes back to us two-fold by helping us build our roster of friends and collaborators. We've seen quite a few first-time muralists come through our doors both as teens and as professional artists and though we love giving artists and teens paid work, it brings even more joy to give them information and tools to succeed on their own in the future.

Also, for the teens we serve in the Puget Sound area our goal is to help them get closer to the confident and capable young adults they can be. They often times interview as shy, beaten down and insecure about their ability to succeed at a job, and leave with a new experience on their resume, a positive reference from us, and with new soft skills and confidence for the next step in their lives. For the taxpayers of King County this means a safer community and less juveniles in the school to prison pipeline that costs everyone money and hurts many lives.


What types of skills are youth learning as they go through the UA program?

Youth at ArtWorks learn art skills, but more importantly they learn soft work skills: showing up on time, reporting hours, how to deposit a paycheck, how to be responsible with your time and respectful of supplies and (most important to our world right now) how to work elbow to elbow with those who you agree and don't agree with. Learning these skills that many of us take for granted is the undercurrent during the mural-making process. All of these skills result in a positive resume, reference, and connection back to their community.

Youth are not coming to us with nothing, they come to us stories, experience, ideas, laughter, and with supportive case managers and teachers. And they don't leave healed without a care in the world - many have a long journey of breaking the cycle ahead of them, we are simply a solid stepping stone to help in that process.

Youth at ArtWorks learn art skills, but more importantly they learn soft work skills: showing up on time, reporting hours, how to deposit a paycheck, how to be responsible with your time and respectful of supplies and (most important to our world right now) how to work elbow to elbow with those who you agree and don't agree with. Learning these skills that many of us take for granted is the undercurrent during the mural-making process. All of these skills result in a positive resume, reference, and connection back to their community.

Urban Artworks

There are a lot of barriers to reducing youth recidivism, what inspires you, your staff and your youth leaders to persevere?

One of the biggest barriers we could face is not having such amazing access to youth referrals. We've been lucky to have partners at King County for 2 decades who not only help find youth on probation who need work training, but who tirelessly help them with interview practice and provide us with behind the scenes information that helps us retain youth who might be experiencing invisible barriers themselves. They are an amazing resource for teens and families who are in the system - and don't get a fraction of the recognition they deserve. We are so lucky to have them!

Also, for some of the teachers we work with it is because they were once in a very similar or exactly the same position in life, and they know that having one person believe in you can change your world.

Urban Artworks

In the context of UA, what does Empowerful mean to you?

A few years ago we got a grant to pilot a new program called Young Curators. The idea is to teach teens about the making of public art - more than just painting it - which often times is the unglamorous other 90% of the works. Things from scouting walls, applying for street use permits, presenting to review boards, composing and conducting calls to artists.

There's a really cheesy line I wrote for our website that I thought was very clever at the time, the ole teach a man to fish idea… "give the kid a brush, she paints for a day; give her the address of the permitting office, she runs for mayor!" The whole idea is how to empower the next generation to not just show up for work, but to appreciate the efforts around them as they travel through their days.

Urban Artworks

Finally, are there any recent books, podcasts, articles etc. you would recommend to the MiiR community?

We were just lucky enough to be one of 10 nonprofits featured in an extensive and really well executed ArtsFund survey about art and its social impact. It's long but lots of images (we are on page 46 if you only have a half a Miir cup of coffee kinda time!) -- if you don't have time to read...spoiler alert: ART WORKS!  I appreciate MiiR's sincere community engagement with nonprofits, this study speaks to this need for crossover between profit and nonprofit arts communities.

Also, Tim Ferris recently had a guest that really got to the roots of why my heart is in criminal reform and social justice. Catherine Hoke created an amazing non-profit that works with inmates to help them become entrepreneurs. She doesn't sugar coat their crimes or her own shortcomings. I actually quote her in every speech I give; namely, the question she poses of "what if the first thing anyone knew about you was the worst thing you've *ever* done... and you had to write that on every job application or search for a place to live." Our society sets people who have been caught making mistakes up for guaranteed failure, and it's thanks to people like her that a small percentage of people might overcome it. https://tim.blog/2018/01/21/catherine-hoke/

And last but not least and because we are an organization that works with teens, I will recommend The Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas called The Hate U Give. 

 Learn More about Urban Artworks 

 

Urban Artworks

Urban Artworks

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