Elevating the Voices of Detroit Youth

My sixth graders on the outskirts of the Yavapai-Apache reservation in Camp Verde, Arizona had just read a passage of a Sherman Alexie novel on belonging, when a hand shot up and asked: “Ms. Novoselick, what is your tribe?”

I paused. As a 23 year-old white woman, fresh from teaching in a predominantly African-American classroom in Southfield, Michigan, I said, “I don’t belong to a tribe.” This wide-eyed twelve year-old looked at me, puzzled, and responded, “But then who are your people?”

Executive DIrector Alissa Novoselick.

Executive DIrector

Alissa Novoselick.

Her question was loaded with ideas of home and purpose—concepts I have thought about heavily in the last months as I take the helm at Living Arts.

Living Arts represents all that is important about arts education and fuels questions like this. From Detroit Wolf Trap and In-School Arts, to our Out-of-School Arts programs, to events that drive community cohesion, Living Arts brings high-quality arts education to Detroit’s youth, equipping them with the tools they need to succeed in school and in life.

I decided to join this mission—and this exceptional team—because our impact is substantial: Living Arts serves over 3,200 students each year across the city. And I believe we have just scratched the surface with regard to what we can accomplish when we put artists at the center of community change and development.

On one of my visits prior to taking the position, I was able to see Teaching Artist Jeron Howie’s after-school hip-hop class. I watched a room full of excited and engaged youth perform, spoke with them about their dreams for competition, met with a group of their committed parents, and left knowing this very work is how we change—not only our city—but our world. We must expose children to creative thinking, experiences, and problem solving through professional artists like Jeron. We must elevate the voices of Detroit youth and listen to the challenges of the people who raise them. And we must keep social and economic justice at the center of our work.

The classroom experiences I’ve gained, paired with an MBA and arts administration roles, have given me the practical skills to take on this challenge. However, the insight I gained over the past six years working in rural Appalachia has far surpassed my formal credentials. West Virginia has considerable challenge: an economy with heavy reliance on one industry, significant socio-economic injustice, pervasive and unfair stereotypes, and a sizeable lack of resources for arts and education. I am very proud of the work accomplished by the West Virginia artists, policymakers, administrators, and advocates during my tenure, but there is still great challenge ahead.

Now more than ever, artists need to be at the center of the work. 

As I bring, now, a national perspective back to Detroit, I recognize the gaps I have in my own knowledge about the city in 2017 and the conversations that are already happening that I desire to be part of. As the weeks and months continue, I look forward to learning from so many of you who have laid the groundwork for Living Arts and have ideas about how we can continue to grow.

For me personally, taking this position represents a homecoming of great joy. When I left the Detroit area in 2009, like so many others, I never thought my career path would afford me the chance to come home. The embodiment of Living Arts—and the organization’s many artists, educators, and stakeholders—defines my student’s question about tribe.

After pause, I retracted my answer and told her about the values I share with so many different people that make up my sense of place. It is those of us who believe in the power of arts, education, family, and community that have always bound me to this work.  

I look forward to all of the promise to come for Living Arts, alongside you.