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7 Questions with Christie Walser: Executive Director of Project Create

Christie WalserAugust is Artist Appreciation Month and among our 52 of art-related nonprofits we welcome Christie Walser of Project Create to 7 questions. Christie joined Project Create as Executive Director in January, 2011, bringing with her nearly two decades of nonprofit administration experience, a passionate commitment to child advocacy, and a long-time avocation as a community-theater actor, director and producer. Project Create provides accessible arts education to promote positive development in children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness and poverty.

What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

For twenty years, Project Create has provided accessible arts education to promote positive development in children, youth and families experiencing homelessness and poverty. Finding this organization has been a dream come true for me. I have been a child advocate in the District since I moved here in 1994. I have enjoyed acting and directing in local community theater for just as long. Combining youth advocacy and arts education makes perfect sense to me. We know that at-risk kids exposed to the arts have better academic outcomes, higher career goals, and greater civic engagement. We also know that the act of artistic creation is transformative, and, for the large population of children and youth in our city who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, the potential impact of this transformation is even more necessary and more urgent. I feel lucky, every day, to introduce kids to art and to connect them to their natural creative talent and potential.

What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

In 2014, Project Create will move its program headquarters East of the River, to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia. We want our programs to be even more accessible to underserved children, youth and families in the District. The majority of our programming will continue to be provided as it always has been — on-site at housing facilities for homeless families or in conjunction with after-school programming for homeless youth. Our new location will provide current Project Create students an opportunity to also join us for programming at our permanent location, even as they age out or move out of their housing facilities. Now our students will always be able to find us, wherever they go! New arts education programs, to be held at our Anacostia studio, will allow us to create a new community of children and youth who live in Anacostia and surrounding neighborhoods who can easily commute (by foot, bus or Metro) to after-school programming in their own neighborhood. As we develop new programming for our Anacostia studio, we will be guided by The Wallace Foundation’s Ten Principles for Effective, High-Quality Out-of-School Time Arts Programs (2013) in order to thoughtfully, intentionally create a dedicated, inspiring, and welcoming space for current and future Project Create students.

Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I have many heroes…it depends on the day! I am inspired most, on a daily basis, by Project Create students. Our children, youth and families have struggled through homelessness, poverty and other terrible obstacles, all too often with little to no support. In spite of the resulting chaos and instability that frequently creeps into their lives, our students exhibit amazing strength, resilience, and courage. I love watching our students try new things, learn to trust new people, succeed in new experiences, and have fun. I feel lucky to be inspired every day by good kids. In my field, I am personally inspired by great community arts education leaders like Rick Sperling at Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit, Jon Hinojosa at Say Si in San Antonio, and Sarah Ward at South Chicago Arts Center in Chicago, to name a few favorites.

What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

In February 2014, Project Create forged a new partnership with Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY) and began providing classes at The Fridge gallery for homeless, runaway and detained youth through programs at Chloe House, REACH, Sasha Bruce House, and Independent Living Program. In March 2014, Project Create launched a two-generation arts education program for homeless and low-/no-income young parents (ages 16 to 24) and their children at SBY’s Olaiya’s Cradle. This summer Project Create provided arts programming in collaboration with SBY Youth-Led, Bruce House, Chloe House, and Richardson Youth Center summer enrichment program. It’s been challenging, eye-opening, and exhilarating to work with older youth who bring a worldly and sophisticated approach to creating art. After decades of focusing on younger students, Project Create has really stepped up our game in order to appeal to older youth.

What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

For twenty years, Project Create has produced arts education programming on-site for our students through our community partners (like Community of Hope and So Others Might Eat) in order to provide easily-accessible classes to our young students. Our model, which involves taking our show on the road, allows us to reach children and youth who could not otherwise participate in consistent, high-quality after-school programs (especially arts education) as they struggle through homelessness and extreme poverty. This keystone of our program is essential to our vision of access and equity; however, it also presents certain challenges for us regarding student retention over many years due to the transient nature of the population we serve. We were struggling to stay in touch with our students after they left their temporary housing facilities. This unique challenge invited us to consider additional programming options. When Project Create opens the doors of our very own new art studio in Anacostia in Fall 2014 (see above), we will be able to offer our students a permanent artistic home in the District. Whether we first meet our students in a one-year transitional housing facility, in an emergency shelter for homeless families, or in a community center in an underserved neighborhood, we will be able to provide them the lasting promise of an enduring relationship with our teachers and staff members and a permanent, supportive, safe and positive place to learn and thrive.

What advice do you have for other people in your position?

One word: perseverance! Organizations like Project Create, that effect positive change in people’s lives and face off against difficult social issues, are constantly fighting an uphill battle. It can be frustrating and often exhausting. There are so many sources of inspiration in our work (our students and clients, community activists and advocates, nonprofit colleagues and more)…we must rely on those people for encouragement and support. There will always be roadblocks (both in anticipated and in surprising forms), but in order to continue to work effectively in service to underserved members of our community, we must constantly search out new paths, collaborations, and creative solutions.

What’s next/coming up for you?

I’m so excited about our new Anacostia art studio and opportunities to build friendships and community with our new neighbors East of the River. I’m excited about our current and new community partnerships and the promise of our students. And I’m excited for Project Create to grow and expand our programming so we can reach more children and youth with positive and enriching experiences. Project Create has had twenty amazing years of service in Washington, D.C.; I’m truly looking forward to the next twenty years!

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