The Arts Empowerment Project Founder Natalie Frazier Allen started Promoting Peace workshops months before the police shooting death of Keith Scott in September 2016, feeling that it was only a matter of time before the issue hit home in Charlotte.
“We could not even speak after the protests,” Allen says. “Amazing artwork came out of that. Art gave a voice to express the feelings we had when there were no words.”
Each Saturday at Promoting Peace workshops, held at the Community School of the Arts, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department officers and 10 at-risk youth gather for orange juice, muffins and collaborative artwork. This partnership did not come without its challenges.
“The officers sat at that first workshop with their arms crossed, thinking they were going to lecture kids on how to interface with police,” Allen says. “Instead, they were paired with a teenager, and they were asked to sit down to draw the child, the teen in front of them, and the teen had to draw the officer. Neither wanted to do that. They were like, ‘We can’t draw.’ Our facilitator Jonell Logan said, ‘We’re going to try.’”
“You should see—some of the kids, the officers could actually draw,” she continues. “Just seeing each other as human beings—that is what we want both groups to see. These stereotypical teens, these officers in a blue uniform, are people with real feelings and good intentions. This is what we want to uncloak.”
Allen, former Chief of the Domestic Violence Unit in Washington, DC, founded The Arts Empowerment Project in Charlotte in 2011. Allen had faced domestic violence head-on in her role as an attorney, but also personally, as she saw family members and friends become victims of violence and trauma during her young years in New York City.
“Violence can impact your self-esteem and your outlook on life,” she says. “But art can provide a window to a different world. My mom was a music teacher. The kids told her they would not have been able to withstand the storms in their lives without her. That came back to me after I started my career in law.”
Breaking the cycle of violence became deeply personal to her and provided the fuel for her to found The Arts Empowerment Project. The organization screens children referred by the District Court and professional counselors, matches their interest to the local arts program best suited to their needs, and funds their tuition and transportation fees. Raising awareness about child abuse prevention and the impact of violence and trauma on children is key to impacting change, Allen notes.
“In the court system, I was seeing the kids who were exposed to violence at home and in their communities, perpetuating violence,” she says. “I started thinking about breaking the cycle. I’ve always felt art was such a wonderful vehicle for healing and empowerment.”
While national studies have proven that the arts can change children’s lives by improving their social skills and academic performance, many young people involved in the court-system never have the opportunity to participate in high quality arts programming. Allen seeks to change that reality.
“Children can mend their spirits through the therapeutic power of art,” she says. “Not every organization is equipped to deal with the issues these kids have. It’s nice to have art infused with enrichment.”
The Arts Empowerment Project partners with Community School of the Arts, YWCA, Central Piedmont Community College, Clayworks, Behailu Academy, Studio 345, Blumenthal Performing Arts and other arts and community organizations throughout the year to provide experiences to children in its programs.
Promoting Peace workshops are a new special program offered quarterly to a class of only 10 students at a time. These workshops are specially geared towards creating social dialogue and building trust between police and at-risk youth. A public art mural reflecting the art created by officers and teens is planned.
“Everybody has to do something to promote peace,” Allen says. “I think it’s being authentic, truthful, honest. We want to create ripples in the community. If you put those drops in the bucket, those reverberations are unknown.”
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