Newark youth conservatory changes lives through the arts

June 27, 2008

Seeking to combat declining church attendance and rising crime among teenagers, the Diocese of Newark has established a music and dance program to help build self-esteem and develop valuable life skills among inner-city youth.

"The steady decline in youth attendance at churches and religious programs plus the alarming increase in crime among our youth point up an obvious need," says Dee Jackson Field, director of the Youth Arts Conservatory.

The conservatory at Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral, Newark, was established in October 2007 in response to the cathedral's need to provide recreational, cultural and arts education programs to enable young people to learn positive ways to express themselves, enhance their worship experience and ultimately improve their sense of self-worth, she says. It began with donations from the cathedral and from a not-for-profit organization run by Field and her husband, Philip, the cathedral's minister of music, and received its first grant award in January.

With 24 students enrolled, the year-round program includes dance, music and language arts.

Field notes the importance of keeping the tuition affordable. "Many inner-city students are in households with limited incomes. Some are in the care of grandparents with fixed incomes, so our programs have to be able to accommodate their economic situation."

Benefit lends support
Funding is the biggest challenge, she says. "We want to be able to serve a lot of students, and we want to make it as easy on them as possible."

The music department helps to raise funds for the programs and provides performance opportunities for the students. In April, in collaboration with the vestry and the conservatory, a benefit performance was held at the cathedral and some of the monies raised were donated to the conservatory. At an Absalom Jones Day celebration in February, one of the conservatory students, a soprano, performed with a combined choir.

Such collaboration entices the young people to attend church and participate at all levels, says Philip Field. "The numbers increase on the days when we have performances, and the students who are performing are more likely to invite their young friends on those days."

Denielle Henderson, 18, is a senior at Cicely Tyson High School in East Orange. Training in dance and music, she also is enrolled in the conservatory's apprentice program, which allows her to help with musical arrangements, vocal coaching and theater arts.

Henderson says she likes attending the school because it keeps her centered. "It combines with the church, and I think that every person should have some kind of spiritual background that keeps us focused positively and allows us to work together … that is important."

Montclair High School junior Samantha Yaya, 17, agrees. The conservatory changed her outlook on life, she says.

"Instead of always looking at things negatively, I try now to find the positive in each circumstance," she says. "The conservatory helped me to do that … loving to sing, the lyrics of the gospel songs help me to see that it is okay to feel sorrow sometimes, but in the end to know that God will always see you through."

In turn, Philip Field speaks of witnessing change in some of the students. "Some of them have become friendlier and more willing to interact with others," he says.

Looking ahead, the conservatory leaders plan to build and expand the programs to include local artists, arts organizations, businesses and civic associations, Dee Field says. "We look forward to training bright, talented and creative artists who will not only use their talents to make a living, but also to make a difference [in others' lives]."

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