Art Empowering At-Risk and Opportunity Youth: A Case Study of artworxLA

Art Empowering At-Risk and Opportunity Youth: A Case Study of artworxLA

Denise A. Gray (artworxLA, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1727-6.ch015
OnDemand PDF Download:
No Current Special Offers


artworxLA is an arts education organization with the mission to combat the epidemic high school dropout crisis. Based in Los Angeles where nearly 16,000 high school students drop out each year, a key strategy in re-engaging at-risk and opportunity youth is through art. Through partnerships with Los Angeles County schools and with the region's key cultural institutions, youth are motivated to learn and stay in school through the use of progressive teaching and learning methodologies that have proven to be effective for this community. The teaching methodology of artworxLA uses a concept-based curriculum with inquiry discussion and other interactive participatory modes of learning. The key principles of experience, engagement, relevance, and authenticity guide teaching artists to leading dynamic learning experiences that empower youth to become more civically engaged and to reclaim their futures.
Chapter Preview


artworxLA (formerly The HeArt Project) is an arts education organization founded in 1992 with the mission to combat the epidemic high school dropout crisis by engaging students in a long-term, sequential arts program offering a pursuable life path that inspires them to stay in school, evolve as unique individuals, and flourish as creative adults. artworxLA achieves this by creatively engaging alternative high school teenagers with sustained arts exposure and immersion; connecting students to a network of peers, artists, cultural partners, higher education, creative industries, and supportive adults; and investing human and financial resources around ongoing, persistent student and alumni support.

The core of the organization’s mission is to guide students toward a pursuable life path. This begins with staying in school, graduating with a high school diploma, and then pursuing further education and careers that allow them to thrive and contribute as active citizens. This pathway, while assumed easily by some youth with enough resources to make it happen, is one that is often extremely challenging for the students of artworxLA. For the majority of artworxLA students who have limited resources, the cycle of poverty, and all of its effects, is all too common.

Community arts is most effective when facilitated through partnerships that are grounded in an “ethos of equivalency” that involve “trust, sustained give-and-take, shared purposes, and lots of communication geared toward the mutual benefit of those involved” (Karraker & Grams, 2008, p. 91). Based in the city of Los Angeles, artworxLA has the advantage of access to major museums, community-based organizations, civic institutions, and colleges that have all contributed to the work of artworxLA over the course of its 25-year existence. As home to the industries of entertainment, publishing, and fashion, as well as to internationally renowned art schools like Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, and Otis College of Art and Design, artworxLA draws inspiration and expertise from these sources.

artworxLA empowers youth through its school residency program that brings together teaching artists and students at alternative high schools in exploring issues of public concern. This chapter will demonstrate the strategies of artworxLA, outlining the organization’s philosophy and methodology that is informed by research and best practices in arts education. Samples of student work specific to civic engagement will be shared to demonstrate how the organization’s strategies lead to students’ development of voice and empowerment (see Figure 1). Partnerships with schools and cultural institutions will be addressed, considering the complexity of this kind of work in reaching and retaining students at most risk of dropping out. The professional development of teaching artists, in particular, will be a major component explored, specific to how artworxLA over the years has evolved its training to emphasize how students learn.

Figure 1.

Freedom 2013, a photograph by artworxLA alumnus at an immigration rally in downtown Los Angeles

Copyright 2013 Daniel Najera. Printed with permission.


When artworxLA was founded in the early 1990s, many Los Angeles arts organizations offered community outreach programs that sought to fill the growing gaps of arts education in schools. The HeArt Project, as artworxLA was known then, aimed to do the same, specifically at alternative or continuation high school settings. The year of the organization’s founding was a particularly historic moment in Los Angeles when on April 29 the Los Angeles Riots began, erupting after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing in the arrest of Rodney King, an unarmed African American man beaten by the police, which was captured on amateur video. For six days, outrage and protest ensued, resulting in violence and over 50 deaths and almost 2,000 injuries, 7000 arrests, and nearly $1 billion dollars in property damage ( Staff, 2010, para. 6).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Youth Development: A process of training and mentoring youth (socially, emotionally, and cognitively) to prepare for adulthood and that encourages and empowers them to reach their full potential.

Social Justice: An aim for equality, inclusion, and fairness in access and opportunity to resources and power. A belief that citizens in a democratic society should have equal access to resources, including education, opportunities, health, and other basic human rights.

Opportunity Gap: A term that describes the difference in opportunity that exists between individuals with resources and individuals without or with fewer resources. Researched and written about by policy scholar Robert Putnam, a widening opportunity gap threatens the notion of the American Dream that all are created equal and have equal opportunity to pursue happy, healthy, and prosperous lives.

Creative Economy: A term used in global economics to describe direct, indirect, and induced jobs within creative industries that include entertainment, fashion, publishing, cultural institutions, and arts education.

Opportunity Youth: A term to describe youth, generally between the ages of 16 and 24, who are or have been disengaged or disconnected from school or work.

High School Dropout: An individual who has left high school before graduating with credentials, increasing the likelihood for him or her to stay in or enter poverty and contend with its subsequent effects in increased crime, health issues, and unemployment.

Concept-Based Curriculum: A method of learning and instruction that emphasizes the use of a conceptual framework to understand and synthesize facts and information, researched and written about by educator H. Lynn Erickson. Through a conceptual lens, educators consider and explore with students big ideas (otherwise known as generalizations or essential or enduring understandings) that can be applied to a range of topics or themes.

Alternative Education: A category of education that takes place outside of traditional, comprehensive schools. At the high school level, alternative education usually fits in two categories: community schools and continuation high schools. In the context of artworxLA, community schools have an extended instructional day with students who are referred by the district or probation. Continuation schools have students aged 16 to 18 who are at risk of not graduating and are required to attend. Often, these students are in school for 15 hours per week, or three hours a day.

Contextual Model of Learning: A theory of how people learn over time through personal, social, and environmental contexts. Knowledge is built based on prior experiences (perception and memory), as well as the community (other learners, facilitators) and place (environmental setting) where learning takes place.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: