The South Dallas Cultural Center turns 25 this month. And in that time, the center’s youth arts program has paid dividends:
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On a recent Wednesday night, a group of teens practices a spoken word piece at the South Dallas Cultural Center near Fair Park for an upcoming performance.
Their director, Ava Wilson, sits off to the side following the script. At 25, she looks as if she could still be performing alongside her teenage troupe.
Wilson, a Booker T. Washington High School graduate, is now the artistic director of the center’s Soul Children’s Theater. She’s just one of several young adults who attended the center’s summer arts program as a child before finding a career in the arts.
The program accepts 75 students, ages 5-13, each summer. Once they become teenagers, many of them serve as teaching assistants.
It’s all part of the center’s mission to provide arts and cultural learning for the Dallas black community. In the summer program, many of the kids enter with, say, an interest in drawing or singing. But they’re required to participate in all of the art forms available.
MEEK: “If you look at the quote arts in Africa, there is no separation.”
That’s Vicki Meek, the center’s manager.
MEEK: “One doesn’t learn to just be a painter, or to just be a dancer or a musician – one learns all of it. So my thought when we developed a curriculum for the summer arts at the center program was to let children understand that that is the African way.”
Like Ava Wilson, Desmond Blair grew up going to the center. Blair first attended as a 10-year-old interested in making comic books. But taking a sculpture class literally opened up a new dimension to him. He’s now a 24 year old developing 3D modeling animation techniques at the University of Texas at Dallas.
BLAIR: “Even if it’s something that you don’t really want to do or you may not be interested in, but just having somebody there who’s putting that energy into you, I think it changes your mindset. It builds confidence, because I have somebody who believes in me. I may not be comfortable in what I’m doing, but they see that potential in me.”
Wilson agrees. As a teen, she was in an experimental spoken word group. At the time, they thought they were going to be the next Wu-Tang Clan. And she says that confidence came from Meek – or Miss Vicki as she’s known at the center.
WILSON: “She just allowed us to experiment and be who we were, and that’s really what sticks out in my mind, more so than the event itself. The fact that she took us seriously enough at 15 and 16 years old to say, ‘Yeah, you can use this space and do your poetry and we’ll feature you.’ That was mind-blowing for me as a kid, and really that’s all I needed to continue to take myself seriously.”
Meek says that providing a nurturing atmosphere for young artists will always be part of the center’s mission.
MEEK: “I think that a center like the South Dallas Cultural Center is really a haven for that kind of experimentation. Younger artists need to be able to feel like they can spread their wings, test the waters and try anything that they want to try without having to be expert at it and therefore being fearful of the critics that might be out there. I think the center has been that.”
In its 25 years, the center has been a lot of things. Each week, it hosts programs for kids and adults that include everything from film festivals, to poetry readings to music and dance performances. It also houses a professional-level art gallery.
Last week, Miss Vicki was working on an installation piece in the gallery that covers three walls with Xeroxed photos of the South Dallas Cultural Center’s past.
MEEK: “It was like looking through a family photo album when I was looking through those pictures and going, ‘Oh wow, look at these kids, and they’re grown up now!’ It’s very exciting to see that we’ve grown up an entire community of children. … It makes me really proud to see that from start to now, we have really made a major contribution to the arts in Dallas.”
On Saturday, the South Dallas Cultural Center will host a community roundtable discussion of the state of black arts in Dallas at 2 p.m.. Following that will be a toast to the community leaders who helped make the SDCC a reality.