What's up at Youngstown? The question started popping up in conversations across the city in July, after an e-mail announcing that the last remaining staffer at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center had been let go, his position eliminated. A pair of "turnaround specialist" consultants had been brought in, but they had no particular expertise in the arts or in antiracist youth organizing—the two pillars of Youngstown.
The building is a brick schoolhouse built in 1917, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Youngstown was more than a building. In 1999, a decade after the school closed, the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA) turned it into a space for youth-and-arts-focused organizations to run classes and have offices, with affordable housing for artists on the top floor. The Youngstown staffers who ran programs and cultivated relationships both with organizations and with kids did have backgrounds in arts and antiracist youth organizing. This made Youngstown more than a landlord, which was Youngstown's reason for existing in the first place. It was founded to be the cultural hub of Delridge. Delridge is what people call a tough neighborhood. It has mini-marts not grocery stores. It's not an easy place to get kids' trust. Yet kid after kid at Youngstown told me that's where they became leaders.
The place is losing money and has to get right, Tyler McKenzie told me. McKenzie is a real-estate agent (whose grandfather is Fred Astaire) and president of the board of trustees for DNDA, the company that owns Youngstown.
But it became obvious pretty quickly that the DNDA board had little idea what it lost when it suddenly canned its last on-the-scene program director, Alberto Mejia, who despite his own youth had years of experience mentoring and case-managing foster, street, and dropout youth. (He was quickly picked up to manage youth programs at EMP.)
Patty Grossman, the chief consultant now overseeing Youngstown, also viewed the situation in too-strictly financial terms. "It's actually not a wildly challenging turnaround," she said in July. "There's no less activity at Youngstown now than there ever has been, and we're focusing on getting the word out that we have these spaces for rent."
Recently, she said more rentals have been coming in. "It has been a spectacular turnaround," she said.
But that's not how the stakeholders in Youngstown see it. In September, a coalition of 112 former DNDA employees, current tenants (including the arts and youth organizations that work there every day), youth, some past DNDA board members, and people who live and work in the immediate community of Delridge signed and sent a letter to the DNDA board. Its wording was diplomatic but clear: "DNDA's ongoing challenges as a parent organization have significantly reduced the operations of the Youngstown model," the letter read.
In other words: DNDA, you don't get us and you're hurting us.
Now, three months later, the people who signed that letter haven't seen any change. "There's been really nothing," said Elizabeth Whitford, executive director of Arts Corps, the major tenant at Youngstown. Arts Corps has taken over Youngstown's after-school classes in order to keep the environment as vibrant as possible, but it's been a strain on Arts Corps, according to Whitford. "It's a huge burden on our program staff," she said. "Ultimately, [DNDA has] to own this or want this, but I'm not sure how much to invest. It feels like we have somebody offering us space, but we don't have a partner in leadership in the building. They let go the last connection to the community that people trusted, and they did not even know it. Now they just flat-out don't have those connections or that expertise."
"There was a meeting about a month ago with three board members, and I came out of it going, 'Huh?'" said Nancy Whitlock, executive director and founder of Nature Consortium, a grassroots group that connects arts and nature in forest restoration projects, classes, and the Arts in Nature Festival every year. "They say they want to work with us, they want to have transparency. I said I want to see your financials—I haven't seen them yet. They got rid of everybody who was connected to the community. It's a bunch of MAWWs in there—middle-aged white women. I'm a MAWW, too. We don't need any more of us around here. We need people who can connect."
One of the great programs at Youngstown was FEEST, the Food Education Empowerment and Sustainability Team. "We are a youth-run program out of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, and we gather every Wednesday at 3:30 pm to kick it in the kitchen, prepare a delicious and healthy meal, and then eat all together family-style while learning about food in our communities." That description is taken from the Youngstown website and hasn't been taken down—even though FEEST left Youngstown months ago for a nearby school.
"DNDA as a convener of communities is just not working," said Roberto Ascalon, FEEST coordinator. "FEEST needs a vibrant, caring person who can build arts community, and we don't have that at Youngstown anymore, and that's why FEEST left. The board at DNDA is completely disconnected."
There's a stark difference between Youngstown as a landlord and Youngstown as a cultural center where kids are artists and co-leaders. Youngstown's former staffers would often draw in kids, suggesting they try one class or another or check out the recording studio. Kids would come in for a quick workshop then find a reason to stay for years. An Arts Corps class would lead to a Nature Consortium or Power of Hope or Youth Media Institute connection.
Tammy Do is an 18-year-old student at the Evergreen State College now, but a few years ago, when her FEEST mentor, Cristina Orbé, asked her what she wanted to do, it was the first time anyone had ever asked her that.
"I'm really sad, because the building isn't the same," Do said. "The people aren't there, and the emotions that were in the hallways aren't there anymore. There's no sense of unity and solidarity within that building now."
"I was involved with a lot of gang criminal activity before Youngstown—that place literally saved my life," said Cham Ba, 20, now in college. "I took a basic recording engineering program, and then they decided to make me a teacher for it. I think I was like 16 when they gave me that position. But I call it the golden age of Youngstown, because the hallways were just flourishing with young people trying to be active, and at this point there are barely even any Youngstown staff in there, much less young people. It's a ghost town. It feels dead."
It was "a really huge success for my life," says Fatuma Ali, 18. "The building, when I go there now, I feel like it's old."
I'm not even quoting every kid I talked to—they all said the same thing. Hollis Wong-Wear still works there every day. She's at Arts Corps. She used to work for DNDA, after having been one of those golden-age youths at Youngstown. "When I worked at DNDA, it felt like they thought what we were doing was, like, cute. Youngstown always focused on using the building as a place of social change, and that's not reflected in the larger DNDA."
One recent sunny afternoon, I made a visit to Youngstown, the historic building itself. This place was the first school in Seattle to hire an African American teacher. Its main office now is literally dark. The lights are off. The doors are locked. It's nobody's full-time job to run Youngstown Cultural Arts Center anymore. Let me add mine to the chorus of 112 voices that have already tried to say that's not good enough. Is anybody listening?