Wong Accepts Accolades for ¡CityArts!
Barbara Wong MA 95, executive director of ¡CityArts!, explains how Providence’s nationally recognized afterschool arts program builds bridges for kids.
First Lady Michelle Obama, ¡CityArts! student representative Sabrina Peralta and Executive Director Barbara Wong MA 95 at the White House earlier this month.
A group of Latina girls and one small boy are practicing their steps in a ¡CityArts! dance workshop called Fiesta Carnaval. Across the hall older kids are sketching murals in another class called Art for the Street. They’re working in a former jewelry factory on Providence’s South Side that has been a creative home away from home for approximately 1,000 afterschool students each year since 2007, when ¡CityArts! and its partner the Highlander Charter School moved into the building.
“Since Highlander recognized the value of arts education in the lives of their kids, we established an innovative partnership in which our communities are integrated within the building,” explains Barbara Wong MA 95, executive director of ¡CityArts!, who has worked with the nonprofit since 2000 and now leads a staff of approximately a half dozen educators.
Wong has been sharing the ¡CityArts! story with a barrage of reporters since traveling to the White House on November 10 to accept the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (formerly the Coming Up Taller Award) from First Lady Michelle Obama. “She seems to genuinely understand the value of creative youth development,” Wong says of Obama. “Our program provides kids with a creative platform that improves their problem-solving skills and gives them confidence and personal resilience.”
¡CityArts! is one of 12 programs to be honored this year by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. “These outstanding programs are expanding horizons, changing lives and helping young people fulfill their dreams—across America and around the world,” Obama noted in presenting the awards. “Each of these programs is using achievement in the arts and humanities as a bridge to achievement in life.”
Wong has been interested in building bridges—and community—since she earned her master’s degree in art education through RISD’s department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD). “My class at RISD had a diverse range of interests in terms of what we wanted to do with our MAs,” she recalls. “I was interested in partnerships and collaborations.
“After graduation I found myself in the field of creative youth development, which wasn’t quite a field yet,” Wong explains. “In the past decade or so, growing attention has been paid to the importance of afterschool programs and the value of arts education for kids. It’s more than just babysitting or enrichment. Hands-on programs like ours transform their habits of mind, strengthen their ability to adapt and help kids develop the critical inquiry skills and confidence they need to engage in school.”
¡CityArts! offers free classes in ceramics, sculpture, media arts, sewing, animation, painting, mural design, dance and more to inner-city kids between 8 and 14 years old, building a support system that helps them transition into middle school and then high school. “Transition is a vulnerable point in a kid’s life,” says Wong. “High school dropout rates are at their highest in ninth grade.”
Founded in 1992 by Sister Ann Keefe of Providence’s St. Michael’s Rectory, ¡CityArts! has since grown and evolved in response to community need. It now offers year-round afterschool classes in various Providence locations, weeklong vacation camps and a range of student opportunities via partnerships with AmeriCorps as well as local museums, colleges and universities, including RISD.
“Our relationship with RISD has really enhanced what we’re able to do here,” notes Program Director Nika Gorini. “A number of the teaching artists at ¡CityArts! are TLAD graduate students, and undergrads from many different departments volunteer as teaching assistants as a means of gaining hands-on experience in a community setting.”
“It’s a great opportunity for RISD students to put teaching philosophies to the test and learn how to create a lesson plan and manage a classroom,” Wong says. “And our kids respond really positively to college-age mentors.”
Last week, as part of a flashmob-style tour to thank program supporters, excited students from ¡CityArts! poured out of a bus parked in front of the RISD Museum. “The kids encircled me, [Museum Director] John Smith and [Interim Provost] Pradeep Sharma waving banners and banging on drums,” says the museum’s Deputy Director Sarah Ganz Blythe, who is also a ¡CityArts! board member. “They were chanting and cheering. It was really sweet. We’re all so thrilled that ¡CityArts! won the award!”
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