LIT MAGAZINE, July-August 2003
three young boys walked towards me excitedly discussing break-dancing moves
Words by Julia Shin
J.U.i.C.E. (Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy) is a hip-hop community center that provides a safe space and creative outlet for urban youth, and focuses on empowerment through skill-building: breakdancing, spoken word, DJ-ing, and mural art. While driving over to meet the founder and executive director of J.U.i.C.E., Dawn Smith, I didn't really know what to expect.As I parked my car and strolled down 8th St. at dusk on a Thursday evening, three young boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, walked towards me, excitedly discussing break-dancing moves they had recently seen and were now practicing. They had just emerged from the weathered First Unitarian Church behind them, which gracefully houses the community center. I watched quietly as the three devout break-dancers bounded past. Straight away, I felt grateful that a place like J.U.i.C.E. exists.
Where did you get the idea to do this?
My background is in counseling high-risk youth through the arts. I volunteered with a theater program in juvenile hall. We worked just with kids who were in there for murder or attempted murder, so they were pretty much all facing life sentences in prison. I asked them what they felt could have been done on a community level that might have helped them. At the same time, I was really getting into all the different elements of hip-hop. I've always been into graffiti, and I had just started really getting into break-dancing and spoken word. Just talking to the kids, it's not like they said, "put together a hip-hop center," but they said that a lot of the programs that were out there were not offering any programming of urban expressionism that kids are really into. The few programs, like skate parks, that were just starting to come out, were often excluding the kids who most needed it because they would have dress codes or you'd have to pay to get in or you'd have to have certain grades. And the highest-risk kids, they're outside of that traditional standard. So we wanted to create somewhere where anybody could walk in, no one was going to be turned away, as long as you show respect. That's the only thing we ask.
This church is an interesting setting for the center. Can you tell me what your previous location was like?
Well, it was different. It was just a few blocks away. It was a theater and art gallery and we would do the break-dancing in the art gallery. It was one of the first spots where they ever did legal graffiti. Outdoors, we had total freedom to spray paint pretty much everywhere; we had more painting than anything else. I was kind of nervous about moving here, because even though the patio area is outdoors, we don't want to damage anything. Since we moved here, obviously, we have more break-dancers. We wouldn't have been able to do that at the old spot.
Do you have a graffiti area?
Well, yeah, we've now finalized the art component. It's a mural class and it's the only really formal component of the program. They have to sign up for six weeks and they have to commit to being here every week at exactly the same time and sitting through the workshop, but it is free. And they get a black book and they get all the materials and at the end they get to paint a wall in the community. It's taught by a professional muralist.
What was the response from the community the first time you opened up the program?
It was very slow to get the word out. We were doing a lot of promotion through the radio and through flyering, but it wasn't working. And then it just spread through word of mouth, so our numbers increased exponentially. The first six months there were maybe 10 or 15 people a session and then from six months to a year, maybe 20 to 30, and then a year to a year and a half, 30 to 50 and now we have like 100 per session. So the numbers just doubled and doubled and doubled. And it was all word of mouth. We were promoting on the Beat (100.3 FM), on major radio stations, and we had a couple of big events that really helped. We had Jurassic 5 come soon after we opened, and then Dilated Peoples came a few months after that. Well, they technically just came to do a Q&A, but they ended up doing a bit of performing too, which was really cool, and they stayed a really long time talking to the kids, signing things and stuff.
What's the ethnic breakdown?
It's about 50% Latino and about 30% Asians, which always surprises people, but it's because we're right on the border of Mac Arthur Park and Koreatown. Also, because there's so much word of mouth within cultures, if people feel comfortable, especially if they don't speak English, it seems like, that's my impression, that they spread the word within their tight knit communities. The Asians are mostly Korean and Japanese. It really surprises people, because they think, "Hip Hop Center." A lot of people think, "Oh you must have a lot of African American people." That's our smallest racial/ethnic group, the smallest by far, maybe 2%.
And are most of these people local?
I would say about half are local and the other half come from everywhere. We have people who come here from Long Beach every week, every week! South Central, Santa Monica, Van Nuys, North Hollywood, everywhere, all over the place. Two people came from Santa Barbara last week.
How do the kids respond to you, since you are… A white girl?
My guess is that a lot of the people don't think I'm the director. There's been more than once that somebody has come in here and said, "I'm looking for Dawn." And I'm like, "I'm Dawn." And they say, "No, like D-O-N, the director, you know?" So it took a long time for me to be accepted in this community, way longer than I ever thought it would take. I knew there was going to be resistance, but, wow, did it take a long time.
Have you run into any problems or security issues?
No, it's been amazing, because I was totally just going on a whim and a theory that we could open up the center and gear it towards the absolute highest risk kids, sit ourselves in gang territory, and be fine. And people told me, "You are crazy!" And to have no security and have no (male) staff, it was pretty much just me. I didn't have staff for the first year really. I mean there were always people helping out, but formally, I'm the only one responsible. And people were saying, "What are you thinking? How can you just throw yourself in there?" And I was like, "You know, you provide a place where people are respected and it's all about respect and you're gonna get respect back," but I was guessing, and it really worked! It's been amazing. One time, we had a little group of neighborhood kids that were coming in. They had a LOT of attitude, I don't know for sure that they were gang members, but they were pretty hardcore. They didn't want to sign in… and that's the first thing with me. They gave me a really hard time, but we eventually stared them down and they signed in and they kept coming back. Our feeling was that the ones who are not into the vibe are going to leave, they're gonna eventually leave. One week, they all came in and they had bats up their arms, little skinny bats tucked up their arms. I thought, "What the hell do we do about this?" And nothing happened. I got a group of volunteers together and we talked about it. First, the feeling was, "We need to ask them to never come back," but then my volunteers actually reminded me that it should never be that way. We want to be a spot where people can always redeem themselves. Yeah, you've got to respect, but we want to be a place of second and third and nineteen chances because that's what they don't get. So we decided, if they're cool to us, they can come back, and it happened exactly the way they had guessed it would. The ones who were really tough and were not ready for something like this, they just didn't come back. And a couple of others, we were really able to reach them. They signed up for the mural class, they stuck out the whole thing.
So, what is the youngest age of the kids that come through?
Oh, we get babies, because a lot of the older breakers bring their kids, so we literally have babies in strollers. We have several 3 to 5 year-olds. There's a 4 year-old who can spin on his head, with no hands. He's 4. The whole family learned to break together.
Is there a certain age the kids have to be to take the mural class?
I think we decided no younger than 12, but we just got a grant for the program, from Cultural Affairs, and they're being a little strict about it. We'll definitely get in huge trouble if anybody under 18 is using aerosol at all, but aerosols are not a big part of the mural program at all, it's only one major workshop. One week out of the six weeks they talk about graffiti and they bring in a guest star just to do it. Beginners are definitely welcome. We're trying to keep it at a certain age. I think 12 is our youngest, but we're really targeting 16-18 year-olds, the kids who are most likely to be out there going around town, doing graffiti and tagging. I think we said 12-24.
What other kind of help do you need?
Well, our biggest issue right now is fund-raising. It's not the most fun part, but we can always use help the day of: sitting at the table, helping set up and clean up, just helping people connect, seeing if there are any kids who look like they need or want to be mentored, or by just observing. I'd love to have people help us sort of spread the word about taking on ownership of the program. That was supposed to be a big component of it. In the program plan of this, every single participant was supposed to.. .it's all free; you can come and go, but commit five minutes of each session to helping out the program, five minutes. So whether it's carrying one thing upstairs at the end of the night, which is the most obvious thing, whether it's wiping up the table after all the art supplies, even if it's just mentoring somebody, you know? That was always part of the initial plan. Anybody that comes through, you're all welcome, but give five minutes, so this becomes your program, you're taking on ownership of it. It's supposed to be run by you._But there are some moments that are so great. I have testimony from an 11 year-old who was like, "We love to come here because Mario (a former mural class instructor) shows us how to draw Sponge Bob and plus we can dance, "plus we can learn to DJ…" And he went on and on about that. He got it, you know? He just gets it.
J.U.i.C.E. (Every Thursday 4-9pm) First Unitarian Church 2936 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90005 www.rampartjuice.com