The Heart of Our Work: What Really Grows from Grassroots

By Jessica Bynoe

Nearly seven years ago Variety New York made a commitment to support grassroots transformative arts organizations in the tri-state area. We get a lot of questions about our definition of grassroots. Is it the size? Is it the budget? Is it the leadership? To be honest, there can be no hard and fast rules about the definition, and regardless of the answers, it is the reason that we have chosen to support grassroots organizations that is the most important.

Variety New York takes extraordinary measures to ensure that we are finding the most innovative cutting-edge organizations in the tri-state area. Often times those organizations do not come with full-time staff or fancy offices or large budgets or even hundreds of children in their programs. What they do come with, is passion, commitment, incredible innovation, resilience and unparalleled impact on the lives of some of our communities’ most vulnerable young people. Investment in organizations like these produces a return on investment that rivals most successful hedge funds. The drive and hunger within these kinds of organizations allows them to take investments, no matter how large or small, and parlay them into growth and development beyond anyone’s expectations. In return, they end up serving more young people more deeply.

Variety New York has been privileged to partner with many organizations, but two in particular have the grit, impact and humility so common among successful grassroots organizations: Artistic Noise and YUCA. We first met each of these organizations about three years ago. In just three short years each organization has grown leaps and bounds in their impact, visibility and ability to reach more young people. At these organizations, two things recently happened that reinforces the rationale for supporting these kinds of small, brilliant, and yes, possibly risky organizations. First, some context . . .

We first met YUCA during a visit to their studio space in the Bronx on a cold rainy Saturday morning in March. The spring thaw hadn’t started yet and the precipitation couldn’t decide if it was rain or ice. After arriving on the block and checking the address, but not being able to locate the building, I was relieved to see William, YUCA’s Executive Director, walking down the block, his arms full of groceries for snacks for the youth. He led us through a church parking lot to a small building in the back and up a narrow flight of stairs to a room with no real heat and little space to maneuver. The room was set up with computers, art supplies and printmaking equipment along with a few space heaters and as many chairs and tables that could fit in the narrow room. Looking around, it was the last place I would expect a group of teenagers to congregate on a miserable Saturday morning, but here they came. They came to draw, to critique each other’s work, to get advice from professional designers, to work on their portfolios, participate in YUCA’s graphic design programming and, most importantly, to find community. Working with their coats still on to stay warm, it didn’t matter to them that it was cold, or damp, or crowded. They were exactly where they wanted to be.

Similarly, our first encounter with Artistic Noise was at a site visit. At a community center in the Morrisania section of the Bronx dedicated to supporting vulnerable youth, especially those in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, I witnessed a remarkable blend of arts instruction, therapy, restorative justice, mentoring, validation and creation. Artistic Noise’s Executive Director, Lauren Adelman, who for half of the time had her three month old baby on her hip, was leading the group as they completed cutting a large scale print template that would be used to create a mural in the Bronx Family Court. Following the session, Lauren explained some of the challenges of the organization included a lack of a permanent home, being severely understaffed and all the intricacies of working with the justice system.

At the same time, both her and the young people in the room explained how this was one of the only positive paths and experiences available to youth on probation. In the months following, when Artistic Noise lost even the ability to use that space in Morrisania, the dedication of the youth to the program would be evident as they followed the floating program to public libraries, a raw space in Harlem, or any free room in the five boroughs the staff could secure. Regardless of location, or the lack of a stable schedule, this program was their grounding and their launching pad for success.

Flash forward to today and both of these organizations are thriving. Variety New York invested $15,000 in each of these organizations over the past two years as well as countless hours of technical assistance to support their program development, fundraising, events, leadership development as well as strategizing about the use of new permanent homes for each organization.

Last Thursday I was able to truly see what the return on investment in small grassroots organizations looks like. During a visit with YUCA, in their new space, I marveled at the large room lined with computers, professional printing equipment, posters outlining the tenets of graphic design and hundreds of youth-designed and pressed tee shirts, pins and tote bags ready to be sold at upcoming community events. Young people were streaming in to work of their designs, prepare more products, grow, create and learn. The space has been a game changer for YUCA and this next level at which they are currently operating gives them the power to teach and mentor more young people and build even more community!

On my way back from the site visit I read an email from Lauren at Artistic Noise enthusiastically sharing the news that the Pinkerton Foundation has decided to invest $50,000 in their work! For three years, Variety has worked with and believed in Artistic Noise knowing their work was of supreme value and more investors would discover their brilliance soon. We coached them through their first mail appeal, a move to a storefront space in Harlem, and their first major fundraiser all the while preparing them for growth when the moment was right. All of us at Variety are so proud of them and so thankful to the Pinkerton Foundation for joining us as an investor in Artistic Noise. Encouraging and helping to sustain such a small organization, doing such big things, is exactly what we hoped for this partnership and we cannot wait to see the next stage of impact.

Seeing both of these small, resilient, powerful and incredibly special organizations thrive, reinforces the reason Variety New York choose to work with grassroots organizations. The monetary seeds we provide may be small, but these organizations have done huge things with those seeds. We look forward to watching them grow even more and doing all we can as a supportive partner in their amazing missions.

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