NEA Arts Magazine

Positive Change

The Sitar Arts Center

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Michelle Obama and young African American students painting a mural on a brick wall

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in the Butterfly Garden Mural Project in April at Reed Elementary School in Washington, DC, with help from Sitar Arts Center students. Photo by Andre Dylewski

When First Lady Michelle Obama recently painted a mural at DC's Reed Elementary, she worked with students from Reed and also from the nearby Sitar Arts Center. Working side by side with Mrs. Obama was Angel Perez, a junior at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts who has taken classes at the center since he was ten years old.

"She was right next to me," said Perez. "It was a great honor. She asked advice about painting her butterfly and she asked me about my family and how my parents felt about Mexico…. And she asked me about my art show."

Apparently the First Lady had heard about the 18-year-old's show at the Sitar Center. He'd applied -- a two-year process -- and was accepted to the center's Cafritz Gallery for a show chronicling ten years of his progress as an artist in various media.

Students, like Angel Perez (foreground), study various art activities, such as mural painting, at the Sitar Arts Center. Photo by Andre Dylewski

One of many inspiring stories from the center, Perez says he owes his success to Sitar, which received a 2009 Coming Up Taller award from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. According to Perez, to him, "It's like a second home. It's a safe place where I can work in peace, in my own zone, on my own ground. It's a place I can learn something new."

In 2010 the Sitar Arts Center celebrated its tenth anniversary with nearly 500 students -- more than 80 percent of which are from disadvantaged families -- roughly 150 volunteers, and a wide array of class offerings including ballet, salsa, sculpture, and creative writing, all at a state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot facility at 1700 Kalorama, NW. There are classes for early childhood development, which educate both the young child and their parents. And Fridays are now reserved for teens and include a lot of field trips. Not bad for a program that began in a basement with 50 students and a handful of volunteers.

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman (left) also participated in the Butterfly Garden Mural Project. Photo by Andre Dylewski

In the late 1990s Rhonda Buckley, a professional musician helping out at Good Shepherd Ministries' day care program, decided to offer flute and saxophone lessons to the program's children. That program eventually blossomed into the Sitar Arts Center, which Buckley started in 2000 with help from grant writer Maureen Dwyer. The center is named for Patricia M. Sitar, who -- as a single woman with four children -- started Good Shepherd Ministries in 1986.

Bessy Guevara, 27, was nine years old when Buckley started teaching at Good Shepherd. She remembered it being fun but a bit chaotic. "We would practice at her desk while little children were running around." Guevara followed Buckley to Sitar. Recognizing Guevara's talent, Buckley helped her obtain a scholarship at DC's prestigious Levine School of Music and later at Sidwell Friends for high school, all while still participating in classes at Sitar. Guevara -- now a board member and regular volunteer at the arts center -- went on to earn a degree from Bryn Mawr College.

"The Sitar Center is a life-changing and life-saving experience," said Guevara whose immigrant El Salvadorean family lived in a section of DC known for gang violence and teen pregnancies. "At Sitar I found an oasis. My parents could only do so much. They were struggling to put food on the table. What I learned at Sitar allowed me to appreciate art, other cultures, and a lot more."

Although Buckley has since left Sitar -- she's now associate dean for outreach and engagement at the Michigan State University College of Music -- the neighborhood oasis she helped create is going strong. One of the center's strengths is its design. The practice dance floor is made from the same material as the Washington Ballet's dance floor. There are practice rooms for every kind of instrument, and a digital sound lab boasts state-of-the-art computers.

According to Maureen Dwyer, now the center's deputy director, the quality of the facility and its equipment says a lot about the center's mission. "Sitar values children, and it lets them know that every step of the way. Part of the reason we want a facility that's beautiful and designed for high quality arts education is so the students know they are valued simply by the environment. And with that we build a community of loving and caring adults around the kids." She added, "The highlight is when I walk around the hall and literally every morning there's the joy of kids making art. It's incredible."

Ed Spitzberg, the center's executive director, agreed. "This is our tenth anniversary, so we're celebrating our origins, we're celebrating our growth, but we still want to keep the essence of who we were ten years ago. So we have to try extra hard to make sure that every student still feels known and loved, nurtured, and mentored."

The powerful advantage of children having safe, quality after-school programs cannot be exaggerated. After-school programs, such as Sitar, help in children's intellectual development -- grades, work habits, socialization -- not to mention that such programs keep kids safe. Statistics prove that giving children alternative, creative activities has a measurable impact. For example, one year after Baltimore police started an after-school program in a violent area, illegal acts dropped 44 percent.

"Kids in this neighborhood have a lot of choices about how they're going to spend their time after school and a lot of them are not positive," said Rebecca Ende, the center's marketing and communications director. "Here parents know it's a safe place to drop their kids off. They know their children are accounted for." (Students check in with a magnetic swipe ID so the school knows who's in class.)

Sitar augments its paid staff with a group of volunteers from the Washington, DC metro area, including staff from the area's premier arts organizations such as the Washington Ballet, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.

Adam Robinson, a volunteer from the Corcoran, recently took his Sitar Center visual arts students to see the Corcoran exhibit of Eadweard Muybridge's famous movement pictures. Robinson used the visit to give his students historical context, a bit of philosophy, and technical knowledge, along with the inspiration of great art. "[I told them], 'This is why it relates to you, and this is why you're going to think it's cool -- and this is why it's important for us older people, curators, etc.'"

Robinson is also working with his students on a culminating student project that will be on display at the Corcoran along with the exhibit. "The students see there's so much more to life than just what they might see in their neighborhoods or their communities, which for some of these kids are just broken windows. But they see that whole thing, the hard work equaling achievement, that can happen at Sitar.…That's something I really love. I guess that's the fundamental difference of teaching at a place like Sitar."