Tell us a bit about the history of Art for Life’s Sake: how did the organization get started, and how did we get to where you are in the work in 2019?
Art for Life started as an after-school program years ago, around 1990, at Norris Elementary School. A year later, one of the parents who assisted me with the after-school project suggested that maybe we could get some funding from Memphis Arts Council, as I think it was called at the time. So, we wrote a little grant, and got $200 to start the after-school program. And then, a year or two later, I transferred to another elementary school, and started working in school counseling where we continued the project. At the time, it was arts and culture. But in 1996, we incorporated and changed the name to Art for Life’s Sake, and then we got our 501(c)(3) not long after that.
I think there was a policy at Norris Elementary back then, that if parents didn’t pick their children up by 3:15, the principal could just dismiss them, call school security and/or child protective services. So many kids, for safety purposes, would hang out on the front steps of the school, which was really close to the street. It wasn’t safe for our primary school kids, including kindergarteners. We coined the term Art for Life’s Sake later because that was the basis from which we started the program. Because we knew that sometimes kids get abducted, invited to maybe sell drugs, etc. We were close to a middle school, and based on school/community data, negative behaviors were occurring in the neighborhood.
When we started the after-school program at Sharpe Elementary, I think the year or two following, we got invited by the community music school director of the University of Memphis to implement Suzuki Strings. I was familiar with Suzuki strings because my son participated in the program years ago. So, we continued arts and crafts, cultural arts – especially of African-Americans, and introduced Suzuki Strings. The director of the community music school (of U of M) invited her graduate assistant to be the music teacher at Sharpe. The assistant was paid with U of M graduate assistantship funds which was of great support for Art for Life’s Sake. We continued from there, and this is our 29th season with mission of providing music education and arts access to the underserved, especially youth of color.
And tell me a little bit about you and your background, and how you came into this work.
My educational background and experiences are in teaching, school counseling, school psychology and school administration. When I started Art for Life’s Sake, I was in my last role as a classroom teacher at Norris, before I transferred to Sharpe and began in school counseling. Prior to Norris, I worked as a psychological examiner, which required conducting psycho-educational evaluations for K-12 students.
At Art for Life’s Sake, I’m using all of those skills and experiences. Of course, excluding formal psycho-educational evaluations. With music as Art for Life’s core business, the mission is accomplished through other programs as well such as: Literary and Artistic Development of Students (LADS); Positive Identity Development (PID); and Words Wisely Used and Awesomely Spoken (WWUAS). The latter has been used as an after-school program and all have been employed during summer camps. Some school principals love the WWUAS program which grows from vocabulary development to comprehension skills, to writing personal stories – and using different media to express those stories, whether it’s an oration, poetry, or short stories. Just creating personal stories; things that they know best of and have meaning to them. But most importantly, my background and experiences continue to inspire me to close gaps and create access and opportunities through the platform of Art for Life’s Sake.
When did you first get connected with Memphis Music Initiative?
Rebecca Arendt from IRIS Orchestra introduced me to Memphis Music Initiative, and first I met with Tawanna Brown and Kiesha Davis from Grantmaking and Capacity Building. Then last summer, Tawanna let me know about the Summer Beats program. So, I applied for that and got funding to build a Summer Beats program, which really allowed us to just expand access within our existing programs.
Our goals were to expand the reach of the arts for children of color, by identifying 20 additional new applicants, and provoke applicants’ self-expression or improve their personal goals. This summer program was designed to benefit them and really inspire them to the love of musical study. And sure enough, through a little introduction, those new applicants were coming in for the first time. At the same time, we did have some returning applicants participating in the camp as well.
What has Art for Life’s Sake been able to do, with MMI support, that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise? How do you think that partnership has helped the organization grow?
With MMI’s support, we’ve been able to increase the diversity of students we serve. I think about half of the new students we recruited through the expansion were Latino, and we primarily have served African-American students in the past. That has been wonderful to see through this expansion to access, that it has really impacted the diversity of the group of young people we are seeing and working with. Most of the current participants are Refugees, African Americans and Latinos. Also, MMI, through Tawanna, was helpful in connecting Art for Life’s Sake with a graduate teaching artist who has been serving in our program.
What does Art for Life’s Sake’s programming look like now in 2019?
Right now, we are providing musical study, which is a Saturday program. We started this spring on January 5, and we’ll continue each Saturday through May 4. We offer music education, music theory, some sight reading. We also started, before Christmas, introducing Art for Life’s Sake RISE university. RISE is an acronym that stands for Respect, Informed, Self-confidence, and Empowerment. With RISE University we take advantage of the resources on the University of Memphis campus, by having more individuals – it could be graduate students, could be professors – who come and talk to the students, between 12:30 and 2, on Saturdays following musical study. The purpose of RISE is to strengthen students’ capacities to be their best they can be in an environment that supports brotherly love.
We have a diverse group of students right now. Students of various races, immigrant and refugee students. The students have a chance in RISE to see sometimes the comfort level that we find in shared culture. Even if you go into a school cafeteria you find comfort in some ethnicities clustering together. And that’s okay, but what we feel is that in society we haven’t done a good job in really learning about each other, and just getting acquainted. So, this provides that opportunity with my students. We strengthen our capacity to appreciate who’s who, and to reach out and support one another more than we see apparent among the young people today.
On a personal and professional level, I am an advocate for multiculturalism. I am former president of Tennessee Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (TAMCD) division of Tennessee Counseling Association with American Counseling Association as its umbrella. There’s a lot of work we need to do to ensure that we just show love to one another, show care, kindness, and demonstrate those habits, or those gestures that will make people feel safe and comfortable, and a little more secure. So, those are the two major things. Music, our core business, dominates our Saturdays. Then we do the other things; get into our personal, social, emotional wellness – related to the RISE concept.
How has your experience working with MMI, as a funder, been in comparison to other funders you’ve worked with over the years?
Well, I think as a local funder, I have particularly appreciated the feedback and the communication we get from MMI. Tawanna sends announcements, she gives updates on what’s coming up, and opportunities for us to participate, or to check things out, or to know what’s going on with another organization. I have appreciated so much the referrals and the new ideas or resources that come from our conversations at MMI. We’ve talked about the direction of Art for Life in the future – I’m aging, I’m looking forward to letting someone else come in, and we talked about succession planning. We’ve been connected to organizations and individuals who we can collaborate and work together with.
Dr. Hattie G. Isen is founding director of Art for Life’s Sake, a Memphis-based nonprofit organization. One of her beliefs is that music is an enriching complement to core academic subjects and an entitlement that every child should experience. Her vision is that all children will be nurtured in an environment that promotes creativity, imagination, and talent development for an enriching childhood and happy future. Completing its 28th season, she has introduced music to about 800 under-served children and youth, ensuring that they have access to music education and other art forms. Inspired by Suzuki’s philosophy and developmental methodology for engaging young children in music education, she employed Suzuki music as a program offering about 22 years ago. Later, she received training in the beginning levels of the Suzuki pedagogy. Spending more than 50 years in education and related fields, Dr. Isen has worked in all levels of education, pre- through college, in Memphis, TN and the mid-west. Most of her experiences have been in school counseling and school psychology. She still consults with fellow school counselors and colleagues in professional organizations that she is still active with. Her credentials include certifications and experiences in teaching, counseling, school counseling administration and supervision, school psychology, and higher education. Dr. Isen has served in various leadership roles in education and professional organizations. She has presented professional papers and workshops for local school districts, churches, daycare centers, and at the state and national levels. Dr. Isen has been honored with the Equity 2000 National Teaching Faculty, the American Counseling Association 2008 Samuel H. Johnson Distinguished Service Award, the 2008 Memphis Chapter of 100 Black Women Legend Award, the 2013 Delta Sigma Theta Sorority – Memphis Alumnae Chapter – Service Award, and the Businesses United to Recognize Educators 2015 Educator of the Month Award.