Living Arts fosters creativity and connection among Detroit's youthThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Living Arts is a beautiful intersection of arts education and opportunity for the youth of Detroit and our surrounding areas. We hire professional working artists to teach children their passions. We do this through in-school programming alongside principals and teachers in the classroom and through after-school programming on evenings and weekends. These dreams are realized through incredible partnerships with our funders and our community. 

Through visual, literary, performing and media arts, we engage children in early childhood education up through 12th grade. Our after-school programming happens at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (lovingly known as the FREC) in Southwest Detroit, near the Ambassador Bridge. I like to say that we wave to Canada from our space! Here, we host classes from Latin fusion, ballet and breakdancing to sculpting and animation. The FREC also houses our youth dance ensembles and The SPOT, our teen-led open studio program. 

We’re thankful to be able to offer our students and families low to no-cost arts education. This is subsidized through generous grants from our funders, foundations and individual donors. We are fortunate to have a laundry list of people who’ve put their unwavering support behind the students of Detroit having equal access to the arts.

Helping to provide an outlet for students of all ages and backgrounds to be able to find their own way and their own thing is important to me. Having participated in the arts my whole life, I know how they can foster healing, communication, education, empathy-building and understanding. Especially during the pandemic, children need a way get those big emotions out. They’ve been affected just as adults have. I read an article estimating that 120,000 children in this country have lost a parent or care provider from COVID-19. The arts can heal and transform. I want to give youth a way to dance it out, sing it out, draw it out and write it out.

The pandemic initially brought our nonprofit, along with the entire arts sector, to a halt. While people were navigating how to work and school from home, the arts were frantically trying to figure out how to do something inherently collaborative and in-person on digital platforms. Our staff immediately started planning for what programming could and should look like, and got online and got students into classes. Lots of great work and learning on the fly was done by our arts program managers and by our former director of programs and executive director.  

I came into the role of executive director at Living Arts this past June. My background is in stage and production management, and I've been in academia for the past 13 years. But the pandemic changed me. During the summer of 2020, amid calls for social justice and health care reform, looking at everything essential workers were contributing, I needed to give back more than I was. As a theater professional, I watched my entire industry lose every scrap of performance and production within seven days, and while trying to help bring people together and connect them with resources, I saw the need to transition. This opportunity to support professional artists as well as the youth of Detroit spoke to my whole heart. 

During the pandemic, in addition to arts education, our virtual classes also became childcare, a physical outlet and a much needed source of socialization. Younger siblings were joining their older brothers and sisters in their classes. Even students who were seeing each other at digital school were excited to come together afterward to share artistic moments. We intentionally opened up space for them to have that social engagement and connection with each other and their teachers. Our season culminated in a beautiful digital time capsule that weaved together small and individual performances and replaced our traditional year-end showcase.

Currently, we are in-person as much as possible. My COVID-19 plan is to protect programming at all cost. Our office staff is working from home which allows us to easily cover one another and limit any chances of spreading the virus. All of our after-school programming is on a schedule that can flip at any moment to be online pretty seamlessly. In the meantime, we’ve implemented cleaning between classes, mask mandates, and we’ve lowered the number of students in each classroom. 

We’ve also kept a few of our digital classes for our families who find this to be an easier way to participate with our programming. Our community has been extremely supportive of the work we’ve been doing digitally and have put a phenomenal amount of trust in us to be able to deliver a high-quality experience for their children. We’re thankful to not have lost participation. 

Sadly, we've had to cut down our enrollment in order to keep COVID-19 safety precautions. This is hard because we already had an extremely long waiting list for our classes. We're so blessed to have use of the FREC, but we need more spaces to help us reach more students and employ more artists. My plan includes lots of door knocking, calling friends of Living Arts and friends in the city to see where we might be able to expand.

We've also had to make the difficult decision to cancel our large gala fundraiser. In it's place, we are looking to host a series of fun and intimate fundraising events in multiple locations with our different donor communities. I’m thrilled to be working with our new director of development on these ideas, and on growing our individual giving and support for the arts for Detroit's youth.

Laura Scales is the executive director of Living Arts in Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.