Stimulus Keeps Detroit Youth Theater Going

New America Media, News Report, Suzanne Manneh Posted: Oct 09, 2009

Editor’s Note: The $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act included $50 million to support arts organizations. NAM correspondent Suzanne Manneh profiles one youth theater in Detroit that has received stimulus money.

Since 1992, Mosaic Youth Theater in Detroit has used the stage to empower thousands of underserved teenagers. Now thanks to a recent stimulus grant, it can continue fulfilling their mission.

But Mosaic’s future didn’t look so bright in January, when the economic downturn was worsening, and the stimulus package was an uncertainty.

“Three years ago, we served 1200 young people, and last year, we served 700,” said Rick Sperling, Mosaic’s founder and CEO who has worked with Detroit youth for 17 years. “Our goal was to increase service, but it was heartbreaking to have to go in the other direction.”

Sperling also cut 25% of his staff.

“We even had to lay off two staff members who worked closely with the kids. It was traumatic for us and for the kids to see them go,” he said.

Mosaic wasn’t alone in its struggle. Detroit was reeling from the impact of the recession.

“A lot of our support came from car companies, and when GM and Chrysler decided to cut their philanthropic contribution programs, we were hit very hard,” he said.

Ford continues to support his and other Detroit organizations, but financial support, especially for the arts, remains scarce otherwise.

“We would have had to scale our other programs further, and it would have taken us years to bring them back,” said Sperling.

The stimulus package, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was a $787 billion initiative signed by President Barack Obama in February. $50 million dollars of those funds were allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts with 40% designated to state agencies to award their state organizations, saving jobs in their states. The other 60% remained with the NEA to directly award organizations nationwide.

Michigan received a total of 10 direct NEA grants. Additionally, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs received $345,100 from the NEA. It received 122 organization funding requests to save a total of 756 arts jobs but could only accommodate 37 organizations and save 54 jobs.
All stimulus funds for the arts have now been allocated.

Sperling found out about the opportunity to get stimulus money when he received a press release from a Michigan arts email listserv, stating the NEA had stimulus money available for non-profits. He also received an email from NEA directly, encouraging him to apply.

In early July, the NEA notified Sperling his organization was awarded $50,000— an amount, he said that will sufficiently support his major outreach programs to schools and community groups.

An award winning actor, director and playwright with 25 years of experience, Sperling founded Mosaic in 1992 with a loan of $10,000, a volunteer staff, and only 25 youth participants.

“We were in another recession, and most of the greater Detroit area public schools had already eliminated their arts and drama programs,” Sperling said. He said that a few years prior he had organized smaller scale youth theater projects with schools and community centers. He remembered that on one occasion, 300 eager youth came for an audition.

In 2008 Mosaic released the findings of a three-year study conducted by the University of Michigan’s department of psychology, which found that after one year of students participating in Mosaic, 0% believed they would drop out of school. When youth first entering the program were asked the same question, 11.7% anticipated they would quit school. 95% of Mosaic youth graduate from high school and go on to college. Compare that to the state of Michigan as a whole, where only 32% graduate with a college-ready transcript.

Sperling explained that most of the youth Mosaic serves are at-risk, “but at-risk is not only about their economic situation. For example, a middle class young person in the program with divorcing parents could be at risk emotionally and need empowerment,” he said. “Young people are looking for a safe space, completely accepting of who they are, yet challenging to have high expectations, sometimes they don’t feel that at school.”

William Moore, 17, who is currently a high school senior and has been with Mosaic since the seventh grade, agreed. He’s been in plays like “Magnificat” and “What Fools These Mortals Be.”

“Before Mosaic, it was hard for me to express myself, to communicate,” he said. Moore said he had always been interested in theater, “but I needed an artistic outlet, and there was no place to go.”

“Kids in Detroit have big dreams,” he added, “and being in Mosaic, you live them. It’s one of the only positive things for youth in Detroit,” he said.

16-year-old high school junior, Jocelyn Wilson echoed Moore’s experience. She started at Mosaic in the eighth grade and performed in “Woodward Wonderland,” “Crossing 8 Mile” and the “Tesserae One Act Play Festival” and now wants sing professionally – but only after she attends college and gets a degree so she can teach others.

“If it weren’t for Mosaic, I would’ve probably been hanging out with a different crowd,” she said explaining the dangers of peer pressure and paying less attention to academic success.

“I have seen people come in here so negative, but finish and leave the program so different. It’s hard to have negative energy when everyone is so positive and wanting to succeed” she said.

The nationally and internationally recognized free after-school program, “is a bridge that brings kids otherwise unexposed to each other, together” explained Sperling. 80% of Mosaic’s participants are from Detroit, and the other 20% are from nearby suburbs. They come from over 50 different schools and community centers to develop their singing, dancing, and acting skills eventually performing in productions for the public, some selected to tour nationally and internationally. Approximately 90% are African American.

When more funding is available, Sperling hopes to increase that diversity by partnering with local cultural organizations, such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

“Our goal is not to see them on Broadway,” Sperling said. “While many of our youth have moved on to excel in acting professionally, we’re just as proud of our young people living good lives and setting goals.”


Related Articles:


Americans Largely Unaware of Stimulus Opportunities

It’s Not Too Late to Get Stimulus Cash




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