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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Young black artists challenge stereotypes

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When speaking of young males, young males of color and specifically young males of color living in low-income and public housing sections of the District of Columbia, Donnell Kie does not accept the prevailing thuggish stereotypes.

Why? His life is “a living, breathing, thinking, walking testament,” the 17-year-old said, to offer a counter-narrative to young, poor, black men destined for jail.

Donnell’s story of personal triumph is also a part of a larger story about the success of Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM), a grass-roots youth development and mentoring program, which encourages artistic expression as a means of coping with life challenges, for Donnell and his peers.

“We want to raise a new standard of what it is to be a black man coming from D.C.,” said Mary Brown, co-founder of LPTM. “They don’t have to walk around with their pants hanging down or standing on the corner looking like they have no energy.”

Tomorrow night, 15 of LPTM’s mentees, five of them named Bill and Melinda Gates Achiever Scholars, who graduated from D.C. schools this year will be honored during the organization’s annual fundraiser.

Donnell, born and raised in various tough neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast, will be graduating from Ballou High School in August.

According to LPTM, which has worked for more than a decade on the ground level in D.C. communities, 30 percent of young black men do not graduate from high school in the District.

Ms. Brown said that 100 percent of her organization’s participants, or apprentices, not only graduate from high school, but also go on to post-secondary education and have a 90 percent retention rate. In addition, 90 percent have not been involved in the juvenile justice system or fathered children. Parents report improvement in behavior and GPA scores.

“They come in with a blank canvas, and we start them out from the gate saying, ‘Men are gentlemen, scholars, artists and athletes,’ ” Ms. Brown said. Then they are taught that “your thoughts, words and actions determine what you make with that canvas.”

Ms. Brown was proud to take a group from LPTM to meet President Obama during a town hall on fatherhood in conjunction with the White House Council on Men and Boys.

“This is affirmation that what we’ve being doing for 15 years is working,” Ms. Brown said. “… We have successfully helped our boys by using the arts for expression to give purpose to whatever pain they’ve experienced for higher good.”

Founded in 1996 by New Orleans native Ms. Brown and D.C. artist Larry B. Quick, along with seven residents of Lincoln Heights in the District’s Ward 7, the organization’s stated mission is to “serve young boys and young men ages 3 to 21 living in low-income and public housing east of the Anacostia River” by focusing on an early childhood and youth development arts-based curriculum.

The organization estimates it has served more than 600 boys and young men since its 1996 inception and created more than 1,000 “masterpieces,” artwork that has been exhibited at the World Bank, the Smithsonian and Children’s National Medical Center in the District.

Donnell first became involved with LPTM at age 4. He calls Ms. Brown his “second mother” and said that due to his experiences with LPTM, he gained the confidence and expertise to launch his own nonprofit.

Teaming up with Ballou graduate Sharvelle Osborne, they co-founded Closet to Closet, an organization that collects clothing from “fashionistas” to redistribute throughout the community to young adults who are not “as fortunate as I’ve been,” said Donnell.

Donnell and Ms. Osborne received start-up assistance from Youth Venture, an organization based in Rosslyn that is advancing social entrepreneurship in young adults. They are currently pursuing a partnership with the Salvation Army or Goodwill to provide the logistical support.

To graduate, Donnell had to overcome many obstacles. In the fall of 2005, during his freshmen year in high school, his charter school closed. When he transferred to his neighborhood school, Ballou, he lost an English credit, which he will be making up this summer.

Donnell credits his success to many factors in the community, including the pivotal role that LPTM has played in his life.

Within the next few weeks, Donnell must make several major decisions, including finalizing where he will attend college in the fall.

He is leaning toward Marymount University, where he plans to major in business with a minor in fashion, but he has not ruled out the Washington School of Arts, where he can focus exclusively on fashion merchandising.

Donnell said his success story is not isolated. Along with other members of LPTM, he sets an example in his own community and for the larger society to notice.

• John Muller, executive director of DreamCity, is a writer living in Montgomery County.

© The Washington Times. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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