Barbara Chandler Allen and Roger Allen, Founders of Fresh Artists, students, board members, and friends of the organization—sit down to share how they combat the critical shortage of arts funding in Philadelphia public schools.
Helping kids see possibilities
Fresh Artists is a nonprofit organization that serves America’s underfunded public schools and children through creative art programming and providing the support of art supplies.
Walking down the alleyway to Fresh Artists, we detoured from Philadelphia’s ordinary street life. Large-scale reproductions of artwork adorned the old brick buildings’ walls, and troughs of flowers and plants spilled over onto the concrete. This alleyway was full of color and was a fitting prelude to what came next.
Barbara Chandler Allen and Roger Allen, founders of Fresh Artists, greeted and welcomed us into their studio workspace. Instantly, they felt like our friends.
In the 13 years that Fresh Artists has operated, the organization’s unique model of philanthropy has made an impact on hundreds of thousands of student lives. During our visit, we sat down with students, parents, and corporate partners to hear their stories about Fresh Artists and the lessons they have learned through their involvement with the organization.
Art and creative expression are essential to leading a full life
As children, we interact through creative expression in the same intrinsic way we develop fine motor skills. When we practice and nourish creative behavior, it becomes a natural extension of who we become as individuals. For years, funding for the arts has dwindled in public education. Through the work of Fresh Artists, students gain the opportunity to experience and access creative art programming and art supplies.
We had the privilege of sitting down with high school student Annisa Wheeler-White. Her animated personality instantly lit up the room, though she told us she wasn’t always this confident. A project with Fresh Artists and Crate&kids (formerly Land of Nod) sparked the change in her self-esteem. A modest but defining moment occurred when the art director of the project told Annisa that she, too, could one day be an art director. The encounter gave Anissa something few of us commonly experienced in our teenage years: self-validation. Since then, Annisa has been pursuing her dream. Currently, she is an intern at Fresh Artists. This spring, in addition to receiving her high school diploma, she will graduate with an associate degree in liberal arts.
For Andrew Diemer, a New York-based designer and former Fresh Artists student, exploring art directly impacted his decision to become a professional artist. “Walking into an art class and having an hour to free roam can be an escape for many kids. It was an escape for me,” Andrew said. For Andrew, his time spent pursuing creative outlets helped him define his voice early on, and in turn, gave him the courage to use it.
Defining your voice and gaining self-validation is a fundamental part of being. It has tremendous power over the way we see ourselves, how we define our goals, and whether or not we have the courage to pursue them. Access to quality art education and mentors gives us room to express ourselves in a way other core curricula do not, and allows us room to grow and lead a rich and full life.
Success is not achievement, it's a skill
Experiencing success early in life is crucial for a child's development in becoming a well-rounded member of society. Successful experiences open the door for healthy risk-taking and teach us to accept, embrace, and learn from our failures.
Through her years at Fresh Artists, Barbara Chandler Allen has found that kids with the least resources are often the most naturally entrepreneurial. Encouraging their talent through training in design, color, composition, and collaborative projects, paired with displaying their work in highly visible places, has given thousands of students from disadvantaged backgrounds a sense of accomplishment.
Sometimes, a single act or experience can shift our entire perspective and change our lives forever. Philadelphia art teacher Lisa Tyler describes these as “magical moments.” They occur when a child is walking to school and sees their painting blown up and plastered to the side of a SEPTA bus, or when the crime rate goes down in a neighborhood park when student artwork is being displayed.
Through many stories, Barbara illustrated how Fresh Artists has been a catalyst for creating opportunities for magical moments and teaching students they are capable of so much more.
Success is something that transpires internally. It’s not a matter of blind luck and rarely happens by chance. It’s a skill we learn over time, made up of our tenacity, positive habits, and internal motivation. The age-old saying “practice makes perfect” is the heart of success. Adopting this mentality early in life and feeling recognition and success legitimizes our abilities and influences how we see ourselves in the world.
Opportunity can change a life
Exposure to physical and emotional trauma, violent crime, and inadequate schools often translates to a high number of high school students dropping out, which makes upward economic mobility difficult. For a child who grows up in this environment, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a place different from their current reality. Fresh Artists realizes the power that exposure to broader opportunities and careers can have on disadvantaged youth and combats this issue with strategic art programming.
Keisha Hudson, director of campaigns at the Justice Collaborative Institute, serves on the Fresh Artists board. “Fresh Artists works with students who typically come from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Many of the students have difficult and stressful lives outside of school,” Keisha said. “Rote learning and memorization don’t always provide these kids the space they need to breathe. Art, however, gives them that room and time to express themselves, and I truly believe that directly translates into better emotional well-being for these children.”
Every year, Fresh Artists hosts the Cool Jobs expo, which introduces nearly 600 at-risk children to professionals in creative careers. The program is designed to expose students to the many opportunities and possibilities for real, meaningful jobs in the creative economy.
Roger Allen, co-founder and creative director of Fresh Artists, is deeply committed to offering opportunities to the youth of Philadelphia. His favorite moments are when he sees a child realize they have something to give back to the world. For kids living under challenging conditions, this realization can be enough to shift their entire perspective and motivation toward a greater purpose.
Crystal Merchant, a mother to three young girls who have become active in Fresh Artists, has seen the impact firsthand. Over the years, she watched her daughters take something tangible that they created and turn it into an object or piece of art with purpose raising funds to help other kids. She believes this experience has helped the girls become more confident in their abilities to pursue their dreams.
High school student and Fresh Artists intern Jose Rosero explained that his three summers as a paid intern with the organization helped him discover his individuality and opened a door into a world of opportunities he never knew existed.
While art may not be the final stopping point for every child, opening doors for them to see a future for themselves that may be different from what they had imagined can be pivotal and life-altering for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We're all philanthropists
What does a typical philanthropist look like? To many, it’s a middle-aged white man in a three-piece suit. Perhaps he drives a fancy car and lives in a nice neighborhood. The Fresh Artists philanthropy model instead focuses on the child as the first giver.
Jenna Wilchinsky, Program Director for Fresh Artists, summarizes the organization’s unique philanthropic model as a cycle of giving – in which students who are typically on the receiving end of philanthropy and charitable actions are the first donors.
“The cycle of giving begins when a child has their artwork invited to be part of the curated Fresh Artists collection,” Jenna said. “Next, corporate donors select artwork and make financial gifts to Fresh Artists. In return, the donors receive large-scale reproductions of student artwork installed in their buildings or homes. Their financial gifts fund art programs and materials for schools struggling with massive cuts in arts funding.”
Jennifer White, MSS works at Pediatric Specialty Care, a hospital that provides healthcare for medically fragile children. Prior to the opening of the hospital’s new location, White asked Fresh Artists to bring the building to life with children’s artwork. Today, the artwork's positive presence brings joy to patients, staff, and families.
Many other donors and curated artwork installations have positively impacted communities and transformed places – workplaces, corporate offices, markets, outdoor parks, courtyards, schools, vehicles, markets, restaurants, and more.
Perhaps the power of philanthropy is summarized best by the comment an 11-year-old girl shared with Barbara when the girl said that Fresh Artists’ invitation made her feel “Graceful.” Confused at first, Barbara asked, “Graceful?” The little girl explained–making something beautiful and then giving it to someone else made her heart feel full of grace.
The act of altruism and living out of empathy is a lesson that Fresh Artists impart to children. They come to understand that by putting their voice out in the world, through their artwork and their actions, it is not only heard, but it’s giving people joy and delight. And that feels good.
Doing good not only gives us a greater sense of purpose, it also lifts our spirit. When we feel good, we do better. Moving about in the world becomes a bit easier, we feel healthier, lighter, and less burdened by the baggage we may have been born with. Have grace in all that you pursue, and it will come back to you in abundance.