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Interview with Jackie Calderone, Director of TRANSIT ARTS

Written by Tim Katz, Director of Community Arts Education at the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education

For this installment of Spotlight on the Arts, Tim Katz, Director of Community Arts Education at the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education, sat down for a Q&A with Jackie Calderone, Director of TRANSIT ARTS, a program of Central Community House. TRANSIT ARTS partners with Art in the House, an out-of-school-time arts program for younger kids (ages 5-11) produced by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education. The programs are financially assisted by the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, United Way of Central Ohio, the Ohio Arts Council, the AEP Foundation, the Puffin Foundation West, Ltd., and numerous individual donors.

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Tim Katz: Jackie, tell us a little about your personal background, and how it’s relevant to the work you do now.

Jackie Calderone: I come from a very challenging childhood situation. I was the oldest of six kids (ranging from 1-10 years old), and we dealt with major family issues including substance and physical abuse, and barely scraping by financially. I feel the arts literally saved my life. I started dancing as soon as I could walk and amazingly was able to study dance starting at age seven. Home was not safe, school was not safe, but dance was a place where everyone was the same. No one knew who was rich or poor as we all wore the same tights and leotards. I have no clue what I would be doing if not for dance. Dance class was a safe place to feel like you were contributing something!

TK: What led to your work with the TRANSIT ARTS program?

JC: I started my career at the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) in the 1980’s, and while there I had amazing experiences that led to national work in the fields of dance and jazz. I gained such an understanding and knowledge of resources and networking, and I discovered I had a talent for helping artists develop professionally.

I transitioned from the OAC into becoming a performing arts presenter and an agent for national touring artists, but somewhat by accident began offering workshops for central city teens at the same time and soon was spending half my time working with these amazing kids. I guess I found my passion.

So skip ahead, through many years, iterations and venues…and I’m now the founding director of TRANSIT ARTS. It was really important for me to have had the 20+ years of experience in a professional environment before immersing myself almost totally into community-based work. And from a personal vantage point, I come to this work with a true understanding of what it’s like to feel different, of not fitting in, not fitting a mold. Adults who have those experiences in their background can really be helpful to kids in navigating issues which at times can be really brutal and potentially destructive.

TK: Who are the kids involved in TRANSIT ARTS?

JC: They are ages 12 to 21…and lots of them never leave! Often they stay involved, sometimes at a high level as master artists, administrators, or supporters. Our primary program focus is to provide equal access to resources and opportunities to that age group of kids living in central city neighborhoods. But our activities are open to anyone who can get there and wants to take part! We have had kids from a variety of economic & social backgrounds participating, and that has been very powerful for everybody.

TK: What would surprise the YP community in Columbus about the TRANSIT ARTS teens and young adults you work with? What do you want YPs to know about them?

JC: How incredibly resourceful, intelligent, and talented they are! They are so much more than what we see in the media – they’re everything good you could imagine! They navigate such dangers, searching for sanctuary to be themselves, their brilliant selves that they too often cannot show on the street. This is what’s important, too, about our open mic sessions. We encourage kids to be themselves, and to show their knowledge and thoughtfulness about the world.

You know, sometimes when you open a door with a kid, after a short period of great progress, they start pouring out a lot of grief and anger and fear. They might start revealing some really complex problems. It’s a process. It might take a few years before you start seeing permanent or steady progress. It can be frustrating, sometimes scary, but you have to keep trying with them, keeping the door open.

TK: Who are the artists involved?

JC: One of the most important things about our diverse teaching artists is that the majority are African American males – reflecting our population of young people. So many kids have not had grown men in their daily lives as influence - a lot of the kids haven’t had dads in their lives – and they are looking for caring, motivated African American men to help them. We have so many terrific and talented men involved in our program.

It’s easy to take for granted that you can look to family for recognition and praise– you can show them all the ways you have grown but sometimes our families have experienced so many hardships, losses, traumas, that they struggle to fully support their children’s emotional needs. In TRANSIT ARTS the teaching artists naturally provide that recognition and praise. The kids want us to know them and what they are capable of. They want us to be proud of them, and we are.

We have also done service learning projects, such as our service learning program we’ve done in partnership with the OSU School of Design and some of their terrific graduate students. When kids – especially teens - can look up to a college kid or young adult they respect it means a lot! College students sometimes post supportive comments on our kids’ Facebook pages, or sometimes perform live with them. And many of our 20-something volunteers end up having lots of fun at our events, including meeting each other.

TK: Okay, but what makes TRANSIT ARTS stand out from other services or programs?

JC: What I hear from kids is that TRANSIT ARTS is life changing, when they realize their talents and start to act on them. Kids have said how angry or depressed they were or how they never expected to live to become adults, but now, via exposure to so many stimulating things in a safe environment – experiences so different from the rest of life to date – kids feel encouraged to take a risk in a positive direction. Kids have literally told me, more than once, that in TRANSIT ARTS “you can take off your suit of armor,” or “take off your mask,” and truly be yourself, at least for a few hours.

It's like coming home to a comfortable living room, where people know you and are happy to see you. You can be yourself and try something you’d never, ever ordinarily try, and maybe like it or not like it. Kids often say.”I can’t do this”…and then they realize they’re doing it! And they ask themselves – how did this happen? And over time they figure it out, how it is they’ve accessed their positive, creative abilities.

These days I see so many former students with their own kids, encouraging the creative process in their own kids. One great thing about Facebook is I can keep an eye on everybody! I can keep up to some extent with people’s successes, how they’re supporting their own children now, and so often I can see that they have broken the cycle of destructive behavior.

TK: What is the Bryden Road House & Carriage House? Why is it important? What is going to happen there?

JC: The Bryden Road buildings as a whole will be a community center. They will give a sense of home for the community, and kids will be an important part of that. There will be a wide array of services and programs offered there for all ages, and there will be spaces for rent, community-wide events staged, etc. The former carriage house on the property will be like a cocoon for the older kids, a place where they can have their own space to interact, to work, to dream. We will be able to leave projects sitting out, expand the hours of group and individual work. There’ll be a safe space on 2nd Floor to study, read, draw, maybe have a cup of tea. There will be places to sit outside in good weather.

TK: Why can’t those things be done just anywhere, like at Central Community House, the TRANSIT ARTS hub?

JC: Central Community House, since moving into its newer East Main St. location, is in constant use. We share programming space, share office space, and during the day in summertime the noise of our activities is disruptive to administrative staff. Central Community House is our home and we are so happy with them and proud to be a part of what they offer to the community, but dedicated space for teens will be a huge benefit. At the same time we look forward to sharing our new space in the Carriage House to do intergenerational programming, dine-in discussions, neighborhood interactions, shared meals, all kinds of things – all of it driven by the teens.

TK: How can people help with the Carriage House development and/or operation once it’s up and running?

JC: Visit englishcentercch.com for info on our history and programs, and our need to raise more funds. There is lots of info on how to help, with donations but also through hands-on contact, fun projects that may offer you a new skill.

TK: Where can people find info about TRANSIT ARTS? Where can they see performances and meet some young artists in the next few weeks?

JC: Well, if you’re traveling over the holidays you can see a great exhibition of our kids’ work in the main ticketing concourse of the Columbus Airport. Plus we’ll have an art exhibition opening December 17 at the King Arts Complex, in the Main Floor hallway outside the Elijah Pierce Gallery.

Our next Open Mic is scheduled for January 14, 6:30 – 8 p.m., at Central Community House. Everyone is welcome! We will also perform at the King Arts Complex on MLK Day, January 20, 2014.

Please go to our website, www.transitarts.com, for programs and performance info, artist biodata, photos and video, and you can Like us on Facebook!

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