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This is a letter I sent to architects working on a plan for the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. I am interested in hearing from people who know about programs where art and high level craft instruction is being used to support academic achievement with youth. I believe strongly in art and craft and music for their own sake, but right now I want to explore how hands on learning can help address educational disparities.

I’m also interested in hearing about “reinventing high school” from a progressive perspective. Here in Minneapolis we are failing miserably in addressing the achievement gap. There are some successful charters here, but I believe these will never be more than niche solutions that help at the margins. We need to create mainstream, public high schools that are able to fully and most excellently serve our diverse urban students.

It was a pleasure to speak with you all about the river and possibilities for amenities that will draw people to the riverfront above the falls. I believe your team’s vision is right on track and I hope it will be well received. I want to expand a bit on why I believe that a youth boatshop and boathouse should be considered for inclusion in the first phase of Riverfirst.

First I want to tell you a little more about Urban Boatbuilders. Urban Boatbuilders was founded in 1996 by a group of amateur boatbuilders and youthworkers. I was one of the youthworkers and was a founding board member and later Executive Director. I no longer work for the organization and don’t speak officially on their behalf. I am still a strong supporter and booster of the program. Their mission is “to support positive youth development through the building and use of boats”, and according to their website, “Urban Boatbuilders is a youth service agency that uses wooden boat building as a means to support positive youth development, academic achievement, and the development of a variety of hard and soft skills that help young people find and keep jobs. We work with at-risk young people in schools, after school, and in correctional settings.”

In the past 15 years Urban Boatbuilders has worked with over 1700 youth, building more than 140 wooden boats. These young people have built an incredible variety of watercraft, from dragon boats seating 20 rowers, to exquisite solo lapstrake canoes, to rowboats, sailboats, kayaks, and even a skin on frame umiak. All of the students learn to use the boats they build, and for many getting on the water in the boat they built is the first time they have ever been in a boat.

A riverfront location would make it much easier for Urban Boatbuilders to do on-the-water programing. Until now they have always had to deal with the difficulty of transporting students and also fleets of small boats to the waterfront. This is a daunting logistical challenge. A waterfront location would make adding additional on-the-water environmental education to their programing feasible as well. It would be very much more appealing to the youth builders to come to an attractive riverfront boatshop than to the current location in the Midway shopping center. The same would hold for adult volunteers and donors to the organization.

A riverfront boatshop and boathouse could be used for on-the-water programing for the whole community, not just the boatbuilding students of Urban Boatbuilders. Additional organizational partners could offer rowing and paddling instruction, and the site could be used for a livery service for recreational sculling, kayaking, and canoeing. Wilderness Inquiry has expressed interest in sharing a facility with Urban Boatbuilders in the past. I see the boatshop as the centerpiece of a site devoted to all sorts of non-motorized use of the river.

Rowing, canoeing and kayaking are fabulous aerobic activities as well as great fun, and the opportunity for vigorous outdoor exercise needs to be made more widely available to urban youth. There are people in the Minneapolis Rowing Club who are interested in teaching competitive rowing classes above the falls and in having a youth rowing program located where it is convenient to youth from North and Northeast Minneapolis. I would love to see a crew of Minneapolis youth, in all their glorious diversity, being competitive at a rowing regatta. What fun!

People from the neighborhoods above the falls have said for years they want ways to reconnect with the river. I can think of no better way to connect with the river than to have the youth from the community to build boats on the bank of the river and then learn to use them in the river. A boatshop and boathouse could also be an item of great visual interest on the waterfront. This would not be limited to the structure itself, but to the activity inherent in boatbuilding. Boats under construction are simply fascinating and would draw passersby. The reconstruction or recreation of a large vessel at the site would be particularly dramatic and exciting.

We spoke  about the importance of hands-on learning and the place art and craft can have in supporting academics, and I want to expand a bit on this. As you have probably heard, Minneapolis has one of the highest rates of educational disparity in the country. As a community we have a tremendous challenge in figuring out how to close the achievement gap and how to create the full bore community will and commitment to do so. I believe one small piece of this larger puzzle is to draw on our community’s strength in art and craft to increase students’ opportunities to work and learn and grow and create with outstanding artists, crafters and teachers of doing.

I have a dream of an arts and craft campus on the riverbank above the falls. The boatshop would be the only structure that would need to actually be right on the riverfront, but close by I envision a series of other shops and studios all geared toward the highest quality instruction in their respective crafts. The exact mix of art and craft represented would be determined by the organizations that step forward to participate, but I would love to see a bronze foundry, a glass studio, a blacksmith shop, a fiber arts studio & weaving shop, a printmaking shop, and a pottery studio. There could also be a music studio, a dance studio, a robotics lab, a letterpress, a photography studio, and many other possibilities. If you are familiar with The Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina you will have an idea of the sort of programing I envision. I think of my vision as a “youth Penland on the river.”

There are a number of ways such a campus could be organized. I was thinking of a combination of an umbrella arts organization as an anchor tenant sponsoring some of the smaller studios along with studios fielded by independent organizations. There could be opportunities to market the products of the youths’ efforts and the possibility of tying this in with other youth entrepreneurship efforts. Close by could be other training and learning opportunities directed at older youth and young adults.

Connected to the art/craft/building/making campus could be a youth social entrepreneur incubator. Building and creating are powerful metaphors for learning and growing, and once you have youth significantly engaged in their art or craft, it is much easier to help them become engaged in larger matters like community, social change and civic engagement. We need to surround our youth with opportunity. No matter which way they turn, opportunity should be staring them in the face. I think we should strive to make Minneapolis the best place in the country to be a teenager and abundant opportunity is a key to this.

The boatshop and boathouse could certainly be viable as a stand alone project, but I believe it would be more advantageous as part of a larger complex of offerings. I am going to write more about this soon, but for now will close this.

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Comment Preferences

  •  That boat building would be nice in Pittsburgh. (0+ / 0-)

    The third largest inland port seems only to have a couple guys who build boats in their garages.

  •  Every Non Academic Activity Known to Humanity (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    is promoted by one group or another as helping round out youth education.

    As a layman, and son and spouse of ex public school teachers, I suspect that they're probably all correct, because extracurricular activities would tend to add some elements of culture and family/friend interactions that are short changed in the lower economic classes and urban or rural ghetto environments.

    That's the real problem with education of the lower classes, the entire culture and life cycle of poverty. The kids arrive at school years behind in acculturation and nurturing of curiosity & ambition, and never catch up. Extracurricular activities of any kind can be one part of making up those deficits, although hardly sufficient.

    I've been a boatbuilder for my living so I have some sympathy especially for the non-motorboat sector. As a sailor I had a jesting rant I promoted during my Puget Sound decade that I called: "100 Sailing Ferries for Puget Sound." Any large reasonably protected bay or estuary with some wind could support such a project for green transportation which would also be jaw-dropping for tourism.

    Image Hosted by
    Somehow a blimp got into that collage. Anyway, between antique and modern design and equipment, sailing ferries could work in man places, with bio/renewable auxilliary engine backup for times of insufficient or excess wind.

    It would dovetail into your project by establishing a permanent local industry of construction, maintenance and crewing. Traditional craft with their high labor requirements would be a dream come true for corporate team building projects. You could possibly man vessels with weeklong team building guests around the calendar keeping the operational labor cost low.

    Educational opportunity galore, annual tall- and short-ship festivals with races, green renewable energy demonstration, and the most romantic transportation technology ever devised by civilization. What's not to love?

    Make it "100,000 Sailing Ferries for America" and run with it.

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    C'monnnn, you know you want it.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Jun 30, 2011 at 06:19:05 AM PDT

    •  Nice idea! (0+ / 0-)

      The river is only a couple of hundred feet wide here, so sailing ferries may be impractical, but water taxis built by and operated by youth may be. We have tall ships that come to Duluth and big water up there. Here the head of navigation of the Mississippi is just a mile or two above where we will build the boatshop.

      I'm going to a launching of two new boats the students built in an eight day intensive this afternoon. I'll take some shots and post them if I can figure out how.

  •  Support (0+ / 0-)

    Urban waterfronts are often neglected as sources of insight, joy, commerce and jobs.  NYC is finally noticing it has a river, now that the city is too expensive for real people to live in.  But at least movie stars can sit and watch the sunset there.  Also remember Cleveland's lakefront seeming very unused and barren.  Your call for a campus on the water in MN is spot on.

    Let them eat hope and change.

    by Athena on Thu Jun 30, 2011 at 07:48:04 AM PDT

    •  New York has Rocking the Boat (0+ / 0-)

      and Floating the Apple and perhaps some other building programs. The challenge is to make the waterfront serve the whole community, not just the high rollers! I think we will do pretty well in that way here in Minneapolis.

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