OST Blog Series | Serena Lewis, Academy Director, Words Beats & Life
Words Beats & Life offers young people a safe space–a creative space–and a space to explore the future. They can be part of an artistic community, be themselves, and work on their skills. There’s not much art offered in their schools–usually just basic classes like band or orchestra or visual art. Words Beats & Life goes past that, with classes in graffiti, comic book art, DJing, beat production, dance, and poetry. We offer a wide range of arts opportunities so students can go deep into things they find really cool, discover what they excel in, and think about what could be a possible future career.
Our arts education program is actually just one of the five priorities of Words Beats & Life, which overall works to uplift and empower the DC community and youth through hip hop. We also focus on creative employment, cultural diplomacy, centering marginalized voices, and building community through hip hop culture. There are a lot of ways for young people to build a life around their passions. During these uncertain times, it’s important to us to help our young people realize it’s going to get better. We tell them that things may be tough right now, but we’ll make the best of where we are. We tell them you can do anything you set your mind to and we’ll help you get there.
Our young people come from all over DC, Arlington County, Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County. Some of our students are not in the best of situations but this is a positive outlet for them. We have had students who have been homeless, who are struggling in different ways, and we meet them with love and community. We help them see what they can be doing if they’re not out in the street. If you’re in here with us, or signed on, you’re not getting in trouble and you are creating something meaningful.
One former DJ student–who is now teaching DJ students–said Words Beats & Life saved his life. At Words Beats & Life he had positive adults, who looked like him, to help him unlock his greatness. Our young people say this is a safe space for them to be themselves where no one is judging them. This helps them grow in their identities and become leaders. Once they’re comfortable with themselves, it's hard for someone from outside to shake that confidence.
Of course, mistakes happen but when they happen that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. You can come back from mistakes. Having people in our organization from different walks of life helps. The reality of some of our teachers growing up is they struggled, or got into trouble, but they found their way out through their art. Now they’re helping young people to do the same.
Words Beats & Life is a family, not just an afterschool program. Once you are a part of this family, you’re always a part of it. We have arts classes but we also teach college readiness and help students build portfolios if they want to go to art school. We have a team and volunteer College Material Coaches who work one-on-one with them to help them get into school or get a job. Our young people matriculate through an apprenticeship program, and often find employment through us.
In addition to being an arts organization, we are also part of the larger arts community and part of the OST community. For example, we work with DC SCORES during their summer camps. After the kids play soccer, then come in and create art with us. We also have contracts with a few DC schools, some of which have approved us as a community service location.
Our teachers are working artists and connect students with the art world. During the school year we have 20 teachers, and 30 during the summer. Last summer we offered hybrid programming. We hosted about 70 students through the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program, all of whom had to be virtual, and we had about 25 other students from DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Students can come in person as long as they show proof of vaccination. The pandemic has been hard, but we can actually reach more students through a hybrid model. It reduces transportation issues, like people who can’t afford the train or bus or an Uber or whose parents don’t think it’s safe for them to be traveling here. And some of our teachers are in other cities, so we can employ more working artists.
Even when it’s difficult, we’re still able to do a lot of great things. This is a free program for our students. We could always use more resources so we could do more for young people and the community. We offer a lot and exceed grant programming requirements with a small budget. We’re starting a campaign to have Words Beats & Life Academy in every DC high school to help connect young people with the arts. But we have to have the funding for that to be successful. We have a college preparation program with scholarships. With more funding we could offer more in scholarship money. We provide a lot of supplies and equipment to our young people, but with more funding we could maintain supplies and equipment here.
If we had the capacity to do more to support young people, we would. These young people are amazing human beings. I would encourage anyone to not count them out. They’re equally as talented as they are intelligent. It’s so important that people believe in them and be kind. They are so kind to one another even when the world is not. It’s so beautiful to see.
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