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Kulture Klub
By Chris Roberts
Minnesota Public Radio
October 18, 2002

If you listen to public radio, you've probably heard lots of stories about what some call art empowerment programs for young people. Murals. Artists in the schools. Community plays. Neighborhood art outreach programs for disadvantaged youth.

A cynic might wonder whether they have any kind of lasting impact, and the answer is yes, quite often they do, but it's always good to get a strong reminder.

Take Kulture Klub, an art program for homeless teens at an organization called Project Offstreets in Minneapolis. It was there I met Nikki, a woman who's been on the streets since she was fifteen.

"It's such a learning experience to ever have been on the streets even once, you know?" she says. "If you've never had to go through it, you take everything for granted of what you have, until you lose it."

Over the last five years, Nikki has become a fixture at Project Offstreets, mainly because of Kulture Klub. She says Kulture Klub is her family, the place where her identity became clear. Artist. And not just one kind of artist.

"I do everything from verbal, written, vocal, musical, painting, drawing sketching," she says. "Just everything, 'cause to focus in on one area, it sort of takes away from everything else that you can learn about art."

Kulture Klub pairs working artists with homeless teens. On Tuesdays the kids work with artists in residence or by themselves on an array of projects, from painting, dance or music composition, to spoken word or digital media. On Thursdays they take field trips to plays, artist studios or museums. If nothing else, says Nikki, the activity provides a reprieve for kids, a breather.

"It takes away a lot of the stress that they have to deal with in their life," she says. "If they don't know where they're going to sleep that might, you know? If they see something so astonishing it can take them out of their element and put their mind at ease just for a little bit, you know, just so their day can go on."

For the last few weeks, dancer and choreographer Roxanne Wallace has been a faculty member at Kulture Klub, teaching the art of movement. A handful of kids shyly form a circle around Wallace as she launches into a warmup exercise. As they stretch their limbs, it's clear they're happy to be there.

Kulture Klub has been around since 1992. Director Michael Hoyt is a visual artist himself. He says the aim is not to point out where the kids are deficient. It's to give them an outlet for expression and possibly a direction in their lives. Hoyt says the program is effective because artists by their nature are survivors, and so are homeless youth.

"If you partner someone that's surviving on the street daily and has the skills of someone that has to come up with their meal and has to look for a place to live, with someone that uses their creative skills every day, professionally, some amazing things happen," he says

"These youth are incredibly creative people," says Project Offstreets supervisor Sue Pohl. "And they're also invisible people. So when they are able to access that creative side of themselves, they remember their strength, they remember that they are more than their situation, and it allows them to tell their story in a beautiful way."

Pohl says many of these kids have been in the social service system for years. A a result they've had to tell their story over and over again. At Kulture Klub, they're not a case file anymore. Of the hundreds of young people who've experienced the program, many keep coming back.

Some visit once and then are gone forever.

Pohl remembers a 13-year old girl who came in on a Thursday night, just as the group was going to see a ballet recital. She said both her parents had died. The girl tagged along to the dance concert, telling Pohl she used to take dance lessons when she was little. Pohl says she had a wonderful time, and later found her a shelter to stay in that night. The next day, the thirteen year old was gone.

"What I take from that story is that, for that space in time, she felt safe and secure, and she was able to experience something good, and remember a piece of her childhood that was good," Pohl says.

Maybe it was a face like nineteen year old Angel's. Angel, who's been in and out of shelters for years, is a regular at Kulture Klub, partly because there's a piano. She plays by ear.

Angel says Kulture Klub gives her a break from the pain of not having a home. She hopes to be a graphic designer one day. She keeps returning to Kulture Klub because of the creative freedom it offers.

Questions of whether art outreach programs for youth are valid or have an impact annoy Kulture Klub Arts Coordinator Reggie Harris. Even though funders require programs to provide so called measurable outcomes, Harris says the effect of art can't be quantified.

Harris's favorite story of a young life transformed by art begins in jail. This inmate he says, somehow came across nine pages of dialogue between father and son from a play called Fences, by a writer named August Wilson. The inmate was so enthralled he writes a beginning and end to the play. When he got out of jail, he applied for work at the Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul, home of Penumbra Theater, which happened to be staging that very play. He ended up getting a job in the ticket office.

"And that," says Reggie Harris, "is my story."

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