Providing opportunities for youth in the urban core and helping under-employed adults to make economic and social progress has driven national acclaim for the West Michigan Center for the Arts and Technology.
In November, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities awarded the organization’s Teen Arts + Tech Program with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor in creative youth development.
“We are always pleasantly surprised when we get any kind of recognition,” said Daniel Williams, executive director of WMCAT, the winner in the midsize organization category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. “We do our work because the mission’s important and we care about the community we work in.”
Williams said when young people and adults participate in the programs and services offered by his 25-person organization, they are coming in as part of a family and a community.
“With all the work that we do, we really have to focus on the fact that there is a larger system to it,” he said. “We try to really do everything from a multigenerational perspective.
“As soon as you try to identify a human being as just this person, you’re already missing the boat a little bit. There’s so much intersectionality in our students’ lives, and we have to address that with them.”
When working with teenagers, staff members keep in mind that they are members of a family and may be involved in other groups through church or clubs as a way to better support them from a holistic perspective. The same holds true for adults who may have children, a spouse or significant other.
“We figure out how best to support these other areas during their time with us,” Williams said. “We have a caseworker onsite and a partnership with Arbor Health so they can receive mental health support here.”
Louise Edison, WMCAT’s development director, said the organization has found success toward achieving its mission.
“WMCAT continues to seek best practices, robust collaborations, and high quality leadership in our mission to provide a culture of opportunity,” she said.
The organization was one of the first in the United States to replicate the successful Manchester Bidwell Education Model developed in Pittsburgh by Bill Strickland. He was mentored through high school by an art teacher who impressed upon him the power of art, education and community, and created programming for public school students as a way to give back.
WMCAT’s three main areas of focus are the Teen Arts + Tech Program that’s designed to empower urban teens to effect social change through design thinking, arts and technology; the Adult Career Training Program that gives under-employed adults a pathway to income security with education and career preparation; and Ambrose, a social enterprise commercial screen printing business that employs young adult apprentices in their first years of college.
Annually, WMCAT works with 145 teens. That number increases to about 350 when considering teens who are involved in a daytime program through partnerships with schools.
“We provide all kinds of incredible art and technology opportunities for them such as ceramics, video game design, programming, fashion design, and opportunities for kids to do murals and illustration art,” Williams said. “We utilize arts and technology as a platform for kids to explore what they’re feeling, who they are, and what’s happening around them.”
The adults clients number fewer than 36 on an annual basis because WMCAT goes in-depth to make sure they are successful with the program, Williams said.
Medical coding and billing and pharmacy technician training are among the opportunities for the adults. They’re also given training in leadership development and other skills.
Williams said the screen printing business provides teens a unique opportunity to learn how to run a small business. They learn how to produce invoices, acquire customers, manufacture product and negotiate financials.
WMCAT has even hired apprentices from the teen program.
“They are exposed to all that it takes to run a small business,” Williams said. “They are able to get experience in running a small business and get additional training that wouldn’t come from a typical entry-level position. They also get leadership development and goal setting.”
In the first year after WMCAT acquired Ambrose, it generated a little more than $200,000 in revenue. This year, Williams expects its revenues to be closer to $320,000.
“That’s revenue being generated by 18 or 19-year-olds who are running a print shop in the corner of an organization, and that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “This is connecting programming to profit and support.”
Williams said many tremendous organizations throughout the region do great work to help youths succeed.
“The need is so great that that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “In the three areas we work in, we’re bringing all three of those under the same roof and saying we can support them multi-generationally. As a model, we’re connecting what’s happening in the medical field, arts and technology all under one roof. This gives us the opportunity to tap into funding sources and also get folks interested in connecting here.”
West Michigan Center for the Arts & Technology:
- Mission: To provide a culture of opportunity for people to make social and economic progress in their lives and community.
- Service Area: Grand Rapids
- Executive director: Daniel Williams
- Number of employees: 32
- Annual budget: $1.9 million