The Anacostia Gracious Arts Program

Enriching Youth through the Arts

AGAP student Rhema Jones sings at the AGAP fundraiser on May 28. Photo: RichFoxPhotography

Twice a week for an hour a small group of students from Wards 7 and 8 get a chance to explore the arts – performance, music, visual, and more. Deonte Smith is one of them, a veteran of the Anacostia Gracious Arts Program (AGAP). Growing up in a part of DC that people often write off as dangerous, he has thrived in the program to develop his skills as a dancer and vocalist. “AGAP helped me a lot with my character,” he said. “As I got older, I was able to teach younger students.”

Smith, now in the 12th grade at Anacostia High School (1601 16th St. SE), values what AGAP has taught him and plans to take that education with him as he pursues a career in teaching through the University of the District of Columbia.

AGAP’s mentors guide youth like Smith, of elementary through high school ages, to foster their talent and interests in the arts during hour-long after-school sessions at the First Rock Baptist Church (4630 Alabama Ave. SE). But the 16-year-old program offers more than a chance to learn, as Smith discovered. It offers a safe space for youth to realize their own value in the neighborhood, said AGAP Executive Director Maryam Foye. “There’s a disconnect between DC as a whole and the way they view the young people from the communities we serve,” Foye said. “They’re getting a bad rap as being violent and terrible. People are not seeing the traumatic experiences the kids live each day – How am I going to eat? How am I going to make it to the next day?”

Foye and the AGAP family want to change that perspective one project at a time. Starting in September on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5-6 p.m., the students participating in this year’s program launched a new intergenerational oral history project to both learn from and share with the elders in their community.

Each student will contribute in some way to the recorded interviews between the youth and the adults, Foye said. The project’s final product will reveal the value of perspectives from the youth and the elders. And it will put their own value in view.

“Some teenagers are saying, ‘I’m just trying to get to 21,’ and that’s a terrible outlook,” Foye said. “It’s putting who they are and where they are in context.”

Fighting Violence by Enriching through Arts

Vocalists, dancers, and creative artists can find a place with AGAP, said the program’s director, Charneice Fox Richardson. The group is Christian-based but welcomes all students interested in exploring their creative side.

Foye and Richardson devote their time to teaching art and advocating for youth around DC. Foye took over as executive director of the program in November 2015, and Milton soon after when the AGAP leadership decided to invest more heavily in building out the program.

Many children in the area need a safe place to go after school while parents work. Foye and Richardson envision AGAP offering that space. “Benning Park is known for a lot of violence, gang violence. There are a whole lot of things happening over there that are negative,” Richardson said of the area AGAP serves. “But the city here is rich in history and families.”

First Rock Baptist, the church where AGAP meets, has been a staple in the community for more that 50 years, Richardson said. It’s her hope that in this setting the students can learn from and contribute to that robust history still alive across the Anacostia River.

Pastor Anthony Minter, First Rock Baptist’s leader, knew the program could help the youth in his community the moment he heard AGAP was searching for a new home about a decade ago. AGAP’s mission relied on the arts to engage the youth of his community and enrich their lives both spiritually and intellectually. “Our whole goal is to be able to impact lives for the greater good,” Minter said. “This gave us the opportunity to do all of the above.”

While he manages the space AGAP uses, he doesn’t ever want to seem like the group’s landlord. He and his church partner with them because he believes in AGAP’s mission. “I take the arts very seriously. It enriches the whole person,” he said. “How do we enhance the talents of those who are in this community and at the same time be able to pour into their lives so they leave from here a better person all around?”

The answer he searches for centers around lifting students in his community off of dangerous paths.

Recording History through Generations

Elderly residents hold wisdom worth learning, which AGAP students hope to capture in their current intergenerational oral history project. But youth offer just as much perspective for adults to learn from, Minter said. Mutual sharing creates that growth and connection missing in the neighborhood. “The more we isolate the two, the more we pay the price for how society looks as a whole,” he said. “The two have so much to offer each other, both lives become richer.”

Richardson agrees. “Often the elders have a very good perspective but they usually talk at children instead of with children,” she said. She believes the project can open up a conversation between the youth and older generations about the past and present of their community. Then they can share that with the rest of the city on any platform they choose to make public the final recorded interviews.

For Foye, it’s another chance to bring fresh opportunity, dignity, and hope to Benning Park and surrounding community. She knows of at least two youth that got shot walking home last year and another man who was jumped. It’s time to focus on the positive aspects of the neighborhood, she said. “Our goal is to provide space for these youth to learn practical skills in an artistic environment, giving them a voice to say, ‘Hey, this is going on my neighborhood, this is who I am.’”

AGAP students celebrate their project in DC’s 48 Hour Film Festival last spring. Deonte Smith is second from the left. Photo: AGAP