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Taking Risks: Elementz

Imagine a city where teens from the urban core graduate college and become brand managers, vice presidents of corporations, architects.

 Nygel Byrd, Camille Jones, and Abdullah Powell. Nygel and Camille are Elementz artists in residence and teachers. Abdullah is the center's creative director.

Imagine a city where teens from the urban core graduate college and become brand managers, vice presidents of corporations, architects.

In Cincinnati, 52 percent of teens live in poverty. Many of these tremendously creative youth express themselves at Elementz, an arts center that focuses on the urban art forms of hip hop music, dance, DJing, graffiti art, spoken word, stepping, photography, music and video production.

Elementz opened its doors in 2001 as a response to Cincinnati’s civil unrest. Urban youth needed a safe space and Elementz founders provided it, using hip hop as a way to get them in the door.

Executive Director Tom Kent said The Greater Cincinnati Foundation has supported it every step of the way.

“The first grant was a risky investment,” said Tom. “It was a risky time for everyone after the riots, and Elementz was a chance to react in a positive way.”

As Cincinnati’s urban core has changed, Elementz leaders realized providing a safe spot was no longer the main focus. Using art, they could help youth have immediate and future successes.

GCF’s Helen Mattheis, program director of Thriving People, suggested they meet with Tom Lottman of Children, Inc. about how to best measure the impact of social and emotional learning. An intentional focus allows individuals to learn and apply skills and attitudes that will help them be successful in life.

With help from a Community Fund grant, this approach has been integrated into all the center’s programs. Instructors use art to help young people hone skills, complete tasks, and work with others. This could be writing a song, working with a dance team, completing a painting. Instructors measure emotional and social skills with each student.

“We have an ability to be more effective with the kids we are serving,” said Creative Director Abdullah Powell. “There is success in kids graduating (high school) and not getting in trouble and working jobs, but our biggest thing is that is not enough. We want our kids to be in high level jobs. Our discussions now with the community are that our kids are creative, and they could be lending to some of the creative companies as they are looking for diverse talent.”

Staff also work to widen the students’ support network. Most come in with an average of two adults in their lives. The center’s networks include instructors, local artists, and business people.

Each year, 250 youth are served. A recent Community Fund grant allowed the center to hire its first development staff member.

And every evening, the building on Race Street reverberates with energy as young people create art.

“We’ve never walked away from our original mission,” Tom Kent said. “We’re still a hip hop organization, we still work with low-income kids, and we’ve found a niche that works well for the community.”

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and its donors have invested $659,525 in Elementz since 2004. In addition, GCF Private Foundations have invested $109,000. Donial Curry, Elementz manager of development and communications, is a New Faces of Fundraising graduate. New Faces works to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of individuals entering the field of nonprofit fundraising. GCF has invested $30,000 in this award-winning program since 2013.

Published in the 2015 Annual Report to the Community.

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720 E. Pete Rose Way,
Suite 120
Cincinnati, OH 45202


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