HLJ Case Study 1: 52nd Street Project

A couple of months back, I blogged about the rather unusual trip we took to New York with a group of young people, staff and hangers-on (in the nicest possible way!) on our Harlem Learning Journey. It was a terrific experience, and it contributed to the step-change we’ve been undergoing at the Winch in numerous ways. However, I promised that I would share some of our learning from the different initiatives we visited during our whistle-stop visit, and figured that the least controversial way of ordering this should be alphabetical. And so I give you, the 52nd Street Project.

The 52nd Street Project was founded in 1981, working with children to write their own plays, performed by professional actors and set up in Hell’s Kitchen, at the time one of New York City’s toughest neighbourhoods. In the words of its Founding Artistic Director, Willie Reale, its main purpose was not to teach children playwriting or acting, although they learn both. It was about ‘giving a kid an experience of success’. As he explained, ‘The Project is about making children proud of themselves…It is about giving a kid an opportunity to prove that he or she has something of value to offer, something that comes from within that he or she alone possesses, something that cannot be taken away.’

The Project does this by pairing children with theatre professionals who, depending on which of their several courses they are participating in, learn to write, perform and direct plays. This takes place in after-school classes and culminates in end-of-programme evening performances which the wider community comes to. The real impact appears to happen through this process of partnership which pairs children and adults from very different backgrounds in a mentoring relationship. Indeed, Scene & Heard, the London-based charity which is based on the 52nd Street model (where I am a Trustee), describes itself as ‘a unique mentoring project’ rather than one focusing on drama or theatre.

The 52nd Street Project approach also has a number of other interesting characteristics. It works with children from 9 years old onwards, taking them through its programmes and more recently (from 1997) supplementing this creative content with educational support in the shape of two programmes: Smart Partners (one-to-one) and Homework Help (a drop-in). It forms a sort of community, whereby children who enter at the beginning are taken all the way through, but children do not seem to be able to join at later stages (although presumably they can access drop-in after-school clubs). It is locally focused on the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood and its new(ish) site overlooks a primary school (some of which is visible in the photograph above), where many of its children come from. Up until the late 90s, it had led a fairly nomadic existence which changed with the establishment of The Clubhouse, ‘a center where children can flourish in the heart of, but sheltered from, the tough neighbourhood in which they live’. I wasn’t clear on quite how it came about, but last year they moved into their own theatre, an extraordinary resource right where they would want to be.

The 52nd Street Project was a thought-provoking visit. It didn’t blow the group away. And it was interesting more for what it didn’t show us, than for what it did.

Firstly, it was an organisation which in a time (at least for us in the UK) when charities are trying to communicate what they do, how they do it, what their impact is, and why they should be supported, simply didn’t tick these boxes. We were hosted by the warm and welcoming artistic director Gus Rogerson, who had been at the Project for nearly twenty years but originally as a volunteer. He explained to us a little about the work, but it was very difficult to visualise or understand exactly what it looked like. (I have to say, this echoes a challenge discussed at Scene & Heard, but which I think has been much improved over the past three years. Like almost no other initiative I’ve experienced, the offering of Scene & Heard – and presumably the 52nd Street Project – is one which seems impossible to grasp until you have been to a performance and have seen, in Reale’s words, ‘them [children] take a bow and come up taller’.) I came away feeling frustrated. Frustrated because I knew that the work which both of these organisations do is terrific, and I wanted our group to come away inspired and excited.

But, I found the difficulty to communicate/understand the offering in itself interesting for two reasons. Primarily, it spoke to me – as a visitor – to the importance of being able to articulate what it is we do at the Winch, why we do it, what effect it has and so on. This isn’t just so we can secure funding. It’s so that we have a clear understanding of why we’re here, and how we can be held to account for delivering on our aspirations and promises, and how we can improve. Secondarily, it struck me that the 52nd Street Project is perhaps the most unique of the initiatives we visited – in a number of ways. It had a volunteer-powered model which capitalised on, 1) the strong ethic of civic participation and giving in the US; 2) provided easy access to the theatre community to volunteer with their professional skills in a way which is difficult with generic projects; and 3) is situated a stone’s throw from one of the world’s most famous theatrical hubs (Broadway), hence attracting a high calibre of talent and profile. The culmination of these factors, and the dearth of similar initiatives, means that even with a relatively narrow reach in its publicity (based primarily on the right people attending and being won over by evening performances), the Project has not only survived but grown, generating the income for supplementary activities and even taking over the Five Angels Theatre.

The second thought-provoking aspect of their approach – and one which brought about some heated discussion in our group – was the quite exclusive nature of the 52nd Street community: children who joined at 9 and went through the various programmes until they were about 15 years old. There were major objections to the lack of flexibility around access points and in a sense an affront to the culture of opt-in, opt-out youthwork which typifies much of UK provision and is often seen as a form of youth participation or empowerment (in its most laissez-faire, apathetic form). It’s a challenging question, though, and not one which should be dismissed in the light of recent events in London and across the country. It got me thinking. Let’s park for a moment the (I presume) more or less universally held position that those working with children want to support as many as possible and exclude as few as possible. As a model, this approach spoke to the idea of creating a community which children were able to feel proud of, progress through and even graduate from. It didn’t have airs and graces about producing actors or playwrights and its user group reflected its very local commitment. There are questions about how this initial ‘recruitment’ might happen, and currently it operates on a self-selecting, whoever-drops-in-first level. But it did bring about pause for thought: what are the benefits of creating a sense of belonging and journey which contributes meaningfully to children and young people, who both stay the course and benefit throughout the course? Is our commitment to inclusion counter-productive when we are seeking genuine impact? This opens a can of worms and I would caveat it by saying that to be exclusive for the sake of impact both requires serious consideration and a commitment to the right kind of exclusivity. Nonetheless, grappling with what brings about belonging as beyond attendance or participation is a question with real resonance.

So, the headlines:

Why did we visit? We had some young people interested in drama who wanted to learn about the project (and I was intrigued to see where the excellent work of Scene & Heard had sprung from).

What we liked: A quality offering driven by a belief in the imagination of every child and the importance of investing in and fostering this.

What we weren’t sure about: How to understand the impact, and how to respond to this ‘community of belonging’.

Main learning for us: Be able to articulate what you do and the difference it makes. This may involve putting significant resource and time into exploring and understanding this. Engage with difficult questions around access, inclusion and belonging. Speak to famous actors living locally.


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