Art Works Blog

"Love is Enough for Joy" at Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy

When Kwayera Archer Cunningham, a trained dancer,  returned to Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York she was struck by the dearth of high-quality arts opportunities for residents. She was also convinced that for the community's young people to succeed in life, they needed to develop a strong sense of their own identity. Both of those goals interesect in the community arts organization she founded,  Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, now a quarter-century-old. Last week, one of its programs--the Ifetayo Youth Ensemble--was honored by the White House with a 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award.
The ensemble was one of 13 programs honored this year as the best of the best in transforming the futures of young people through the arts. As First Lady Michelle Obama noted in her remarks at the awards ceremony, these programs, "see firsthand that giving a child the chance to fill a canvas, or to perfect a harmony, or to shine on stage, that can stoke the flames of a lifelong passion, and it can teach valuable skills--skills like hard work and persistence."
Just days before the group arrived in Washington, DC for the award festivities, we spoke with Cunningham to find out what Ifetayo has accomplished in its first 25 years and what it has planned for the next 25.
NEA: Can you please give us a brief history of Ifetayo Cultural Arts? What was the need that sparked the organization?
KWAYERA ARCHER CUNNINGHAM: Originally, I was a dancer, and when I would come back in town, particularly in Flatbush, [Brooklyn]--which is a community of a great number of newly arrived immigrants and new Americans--I found that there was no opportunity, that I could see, for professional arts expression…. And I also found that there was a great need for identity development. There were a lot of young people who really didn't connect to any of the [countries] that they even came from. And so, I found that to really be affecting the self esteem of the young people. So, those [were the] combined issues-- no professional arts outlet in the root of the community as well as [lack of] identity. 
I started with dance classes, teaching them myself. Shortly thereafter, within four weeks, we established the Youth Ensemble. So it was Ifetayo Cultural Arts, but then, within four weeks, we found ten amazingly talented young people who stayed in rehearsal four-eight hours on a Saturday in 1989, you know, the summer. Literally, the two-year-old who was present in class--I had a mixed-age group class--believe it or not, this two-year-old was highly professional as well. Trust me, she was following ten year olds in an unbelievable manner. She is now the youth ensemble director coming to the White House with us [for the NAHYHP awards ceremony] on Friday, 25 years later.
NEA: Tell us about the name Ifetayo--what it means, and how it reflects the mission of the organization.
CUNNINGHAM: When I started Ifetayo I wanted to find a name that would really embody the essence of what we wanted young people and their families to experience. The part of the story that I was sharing with you about the self love, the self pride, the belief in one's ancestry, and thinking [that those qualities] were a good thing was really key for me. Choosing the name Ifetayo represented that and embodied that. Ifetayo is from West African Nigeria, and the Yoruba language. [It means] "love is enough for joy." And so in thinking that "love brings happiness" is another interpretation or definition of the word, we wanted young people to really learn and to heighten love for themselves, and, ultimately, be able to manifest that joy for themselves, their families, and their community. When we say “love of self,” we mean the full self--all of your heritage, your ancestry, and not shunning it because of the horrible things that have happened in history that tend to overshadow the real successful things in one's history. 
NEA: Can you please briefly talk about some of Ifetayo’s programs?
CUNNINGHAM: We use performing and visual arts to address social issues, but also train and educate, and build community. We do that in a manner where we provide rigorous training, but with a strong connectedness for family development.
NEA: Looking over the 25 years of the organization’s history, what would you cite as some of the surprises?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, unintended, but, maybe, subliminally expected, was that we would have young people still connected with us in 25 years in really strong and meaningful way--taking leadership in the organization and carrying the mantle, really bringing the program's goals to fruition. Young people don't just come and learn and leave, but [they] have been able to really manifest the fact that we are building community. So, yes, it's an arts institution. Yes, we do community development. Yes, we get young people to college and even give them money to go to college. Yes, we do workshops for parents. But, more than all of that, what we’re starting to see is that young people have relationships with each other for a lifetime, as well as with the organization. So, that is powerful for me and gives me the faith that we're impacting not just their lives and their schools and their community, but the entire fabric of a neighborhood in a powerful way.
I would say the second thing for me is that we've been able to take young people around the world, particularly the Youth Ensemble, to visit countries throughout the African Diaspora, providing them with international leadership opportunities. And so, when they come back, they're able to share artistically some of the art forms they’ve learned, but also address social issues. I think that was a big piece for me--that they're incorporating international art forms and social issues that are usually too delicate for young people to address just in a forum sitting around speaking or in a workshop. They're able to investigate those ideas through the art form, and provoke other peers to want to get engaged around those issues. 
NEA: You just said that for the young people involved in Ifetayo using the performing arts is a way for them to look at these delicate social issues in a different way than just sitting in a room and chatting about it. Why do you think the performing arts are such a good vehicle for having those difficult conversations or expressing those difficult ideas?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think that can be answered on two sides: there's one for the performers and the process they go through, and there's the other side for the audience member. I would like to take the side for the performer--the student--first, because they engage in a research process that encompasses group discussions and field trips and relevant literature before they even tackle an issue to say they want to share it with the world through arts. We're consistent in ensuring that they show up in a manner that is thorough. They're expected to then gather collectively, analyze, and utilize the information as an entire group. And then they begin, with a research specialist assisting them from time to time, creating text for the work that is going to be shared, or the issue they want to address. After that process, they dedicate about 20 hours to really building an entire production, and then they present it to their peers in the community, maybe the organization, and their parents and teachers.
We let the young people drive that issue, and so I think that's one big piece why--and I'm not just talking about generally--people can digest really strong and delicate issues in a performance environment. I'm also talking about why young people even choose to investigate those issues, and I think one reason is because we really support them in making sure they have the information, and then give them space, and forum and agency to express what their feelings are, based on the research they found and their vision and voice as young people. So, I think that's very empowering to young people, and then we have experts there to say, "Ok, if this is what you really see as the solution, let's work it out." So, they have time to work on it, research, and creatively write about it, and then they clearly create a production. 
The last piece before they get to stage is understand that this is a piece of being an activist, or an advocate-- to really change issues in the community and people's understanding and awareness. In order for them to do that, which is very mature, they have to understand they're not just standing on a soapbox. That, what they're telling people to do, they have to consider, even as young people, embracing that in their own lives, which is extremely intense. So, it goes beyond artists at this point. It becomes responsible artists, which is really powerful. 
Our Youth Ensemble faced this issue some years ago when they were dealing with HIV and AIDS, and going around and sharing their work with the community and their peers in public schools. They had to talk about if they were really making healthy choices themselves in their lives. So, that's powerful, and that's why I think on the performer's side--it's inviting.
On the audience side, I think the whole production, and the story, and opportunity for people to intersect in that story wherever's comfortable, [in a way] that's not dictated or put on a spot;, where they're able to be spectators, and reflect, and contemplate while, at the same time, enjoying hopeful, and uplifting and thought-provoking type of entertainment is, for me--what I've seen over 25 years in this environment--one of the most profound and powerful ways for people to think about change. And be open to entering that dialogue wherever's comfortable for them without feeling put upon. 
NEA: Given your quarter-century of experience, what advice would you give to other artists, or other people in the community, who want to start this type of organization?
CUNNINGHAM: The first [piece of advice] that came to my mind was if you wanted to work with artists and you really wanted it to be sustainable, the first [thing] would be to make sure that you have seasoned, skilled artists leading the process, particularly if it were for children or adults. I think that's really important because all too often we engage whoever's closest and tend to forget about the people who have dedicated their lives to the arts, and too often forget about them because we think they're off doing Broadway or doing theater overseas. Or we just don't think about them, or [we think] they're not affordable. So, that would be the first thing because I think there is a major resource within the arts community. The second thing, I would say, is to engage all aspects of the community, whether it be parents or business owners. I mean, that's been one of our saving graces, that we involved elected officials. Don't just think arts, but how can the larger community support the sustainability of this arts initiative? And then, the next thing is… to be very focused on the vision and don't dilute it.
NEA: Where would you like to see Ifetayo in the next ten or 25 years?
CUNNINGHAM: What’s really exciting is we're 25 years in, and we're receiving this awesome award. We've also just secured a 9,000-square-foot loft space that we're renovating with support from a local senator to the tune of $500,000. The community, after 25 years, is [now] going to have state-of-the-art studios, which is amazing. And so, with that accomplished, within the next ten years, I'd really like to offer more arts classes for families so that they can experience what the young people are experiencing. And, I would like to ensure that there's more space for more of our graduates to come back and teach and lead programming. I would really like to see Ifetayo partnering [with] more community entities, whether it be more schools, more businesses, more hospitals, just however we can partner and engage with building community with our young people. And, lastly, [I’d like to see] that we're sharing our successes with other organizations and the country, hat we're sharing our model and our successes.
NEA: Our motto at the NEA is “Art works.” What does that phrase conjure for you?
CUNNINGHAM: It conjures for me that art works to develop communities. That, it actually really works… It works to heal people. It works to help with literacy. It works for community development. It works to generate income in communities. It works. It actually is a major tool for elevation, advancement, and success.
NEA: Is there anything you want to add, or that you want to make sure our readers take away about Ifetayo Cultural Arts?
CUNNINGHAM: That Ifetayo prides itself on building programming on children's heritage. That's a really big piece. That that has proven, for us, to help our young people to go out into the world and share with the broader world about not just their culture, but to also be very, very compassionate about other communities' contributions to the world and to their society. 

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