Center gives girls an artistic outlet

Fifty-six inner-city girls currently take a variety of arts classes through The Arizona Bridge Project.

Emily Kaiser

Facing floor-to-ceiling mirrors in a dance studio Wednesday, three teenage girls began their singing class with a warm-up song. The energy of the girls engulfed the large room, bouncing off the mirrors as they danced and often overpowered the stereo.

Choral music education senior Kela Wanyama stood along the side of the room controlling the stereo and smiling as the girls took turns singing different parts.

The next night, the room was filled with more than 10 girls creating an African dance and a choreographed dance for an upcoming performance.

The girls participate in The Arizona Bridge Project, a free after-school youth program for girls at the Old Arizona: Center for Performing and Media Arts in Minneapolis. Currently, 56 inner-city girls take the various classes.

Several University students volunteer with the program and executive director Elizabeth Trumble said they are “some of the most important volunteers” in the program.

Trumble said the program started 10 years ago because she saw a lot of prostitution on the theater’s corner and the age of the girls was getting younger.

“We grew concerned that more teenage girls were getting involved in criminal activities,” she said. “Checking with police records, we found evidence that female juvenile crime was on the rise.”

The program offers classes in dance, music and visual art meant to give girls a place to be after school, said Lisa Carlson, youth program director.

“We offer a safe place for girls to form a community,” she said.

As a volunteer at the theater, Wanyama said the program is an “amazing” opportunity for her to get engaged with girls in the community.

“The Arizona Bridge Project is unique in its mission to work with young girls and, more specifically, to empower them to use their voices and knowledge in a powerful way,” she said.

Wanyama is part of a community-based research course in the University’s African-American studies department, where students find a place to commit their time and energy in the Twin Cities.

“The class is designed to explore the relationship between the work we do in the academy and what we can do in the community,” she said.

After hearing about the theater program in high school, Wanyama said, she was interested in being put to work at the program and contacted Carlson.

“It’s so amazing because they are just happy to have you there with the girls,” she said. “You don’t need to teach a class; they are just happy to have people there to hang out.”

Wanyama attends and helps teach the singing class once a week and said the class is a rewarding experience each session.

“The program is an opportunity for the girls to hang out and not have to worry so much about things,” she said. “We hope The Arizona Bridge Project really is a space for the girls to be themselves and explore things they couldn’t at home or at school.”

Second-year graphic design student Vivian Mui also is in the University course and volunteers at the youth program.

Mui said that when she started working with the art class on Wednesday nights, she wasn’t sure what her purpose was, but soon realized why it was important to be there.

“They have a place where they can go and meet University students in the field they are interested in,” she said. “There isn’t that age gap so we can really listen to each other.”

Wanyama said her time with the singing program isn’t just community service, but also a commitment to the community.

Wanyama said many people see community service as a time to step out of the University, do something good for the community and return to being a student.

“I want to look at how we can bridge the gap between the University and the community,” she said. “There is so much outside the University we can benefit from because there is so much knowledge that doesn’t make it through the door here.”

Minneapolis high school sophomore Tomika Ocel said she began taking the classes this summer. She now attends classes three days a week after school.

After several exercises in the singing class, Wanyama asked the girls about their favorite music and what makes particular artists good singers or performers.

Ocel said she likes Missy Elliot because she always is herself when she performs.

“She can perform and doesn’t have to be someone else,” Ocel said.

Ocel said she enjoys having a place where there are no boys because the girls would be shy during the dancing class and worry about their hair and makeup if they were sweating.

“If guys were there, there would be too much drama,” she said.

Trumble said the program is focused on girls because self-esteem and body-image issues arise in adolescence.

Wanyama said every week is a chance to relax and not worry about being a student.

“You run from class to class, worried about your homework,” she said. “Working with the girls is not like that at all because we explore what we can do with our voices, and if we have large space, we figure out ways to fill it up.”