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.