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Feature Tue May 17 2011
There are many ways to a teenager's heart; you just have to know where to start. Co-op Image Group started with a few video cameras and has kept the kids interests by adding stencils, samplers, molten glass and hot sauce.
It all began in 2002 when Mike Bancroft (who was working for Street Level Youth Media at the time) and his sister, Bridget, were working on a project with the SLYM kids called "Post Our Bills." The idea was to use boarded up buildings as exhibition opportunities -- rather than looking at plywood-covered windows, wouldn't you rather look at paintings? Although they didn't get a lot of cooperation from the city, they attracted a lot of volunteers and positive attention from the neighborhood, and before they knew it they received a donated building and a community garden -- now the Campbell Co-op Garden (1357 N. Campbell St.).
"It sort of happened accidentally in a lot of ways," says Bancroft.
Today, Co-op Image runs a bevy of after school programs for high school kids, teaching everything from sound production to culinary art. And it didn't end in the kitchen -- one of Co-op's better-known ventures, "Chi-Town Chefs," went from a simple cooking class to a comprehensive culinary education on Public Access television.
"Chi-Town Chefs connects urban agriculture, the politics of healthy eating, and culinary-arts training," says the Co-op website. "Teen apprentices cultivate herbs and vegetables in Co-op Image's community gardens then use them in the production of their cooking show set for broadcast on CAN-TV. The cooking show teaches industry-standard video production techniques to youth and serves the community with culturally relevant information about food preparation, nutrition, and sustainable urban agriculture."
When I asked the kids what their favorite thing about Co-op Image is, several of them said it was learning to make beats for the Mobile Media Lab -- a program that takes to the streets, giving teenagers access to audio technology to create sound projects about life through their words and music.
And then there is Co-op Hot Sauce, which you've probably heard of and maybe tasted if you've been to Treat, the Rocking Horse or Kumas (to name a few of the restaurants that carry it). Co-op Hot Sauce is constantly referenced in the art community -- at workshops and lectures -- when people start talking about money. It is a great success story of a creative funding solution.
"With all our programs we try to have sort of an earned income bent to them," Bancroft said. "So we were going to the Humboldt Park farmers market selling our produce from our gardens -- we'd have a little pile of greens and a couple chilies and we'd make a couple mercy sells, but we'd be sitting next to Growing Power that had these massive commercial farms, so it wasn't really viable. It was great to get the word out about the organization but money wasn't coming in and the kids were getting really bored. I was already experimenting with making sauces with friends and family and had a pretty basic recipe to go from and it was sort of a joint idea between the kids and myself to start selling the sauce at the markets."
The programs run in sessions -- not all of them are in session all the time. Right now, a few of the kids are taking glassblowing classes at Chicago Hot Glass in Humboldt Park.
"The kids learn about teamwork, focus, work ethic, creative problem solving, perseverance, and trust for each other and for me, to name a few that top the list aside from the artisan skills of glassblowing," explains Pearl Dick, the Co-op instructor at Chicago Hot Glass. "The nature of working with this material breaks down barriers -- the kids are reliant on each other and all of their previous stereotypes quickly dissolve once they realize that they are all starting at the same level -- the athlete who is usually cool and aloof and possibly afraid to fail or look silly is attempting something way out of his/her comfort zone and is being helped by the ultra-shy girl who would never get noticed but is picking up glass quickly and is more confident and outgoing, becoming a leader as a result."
"Last semester, the kids encouraged me to try blowing glass," Bancroft mused. "There was an extra slot, but I didn't know what I was doing. There was sort of this crazy moment where Pearl's like, 'well I'm not teaching him,' so the kids taught me. They all stood around and they were timid at first, but then they stepped up and they were assertive and they taught me how to do it."
"One of my favorite projects we did with the Co-op kids was a 17-foot glass pathway that we installed in the Campbell Gardens during the summer program of 2008," recounts Dick. "We ripped out the old concrete walkway with sledgehammers and pry bars -- a great anger management exercise for the kids, especially the girls! We leveled out the land and re-poured the concrete and we painted and fused hundreds of glass tiles, which we then cemented into the walkway. The piece contains a big portrait of all of us together as well as messages the kids wrote like, 'The future is ours,' 'We believe,' 'Hola, Welcome,' 'RIP PJ,' etc. We also demoed the two old dilapidated benches that were in the park and made new ones with fused glass tiles and cast concrete. All are still in the park today and the kids go back to visit their constructions."
Dick continues, "It was very cool for them to have a hand in beautifying their own neighborhood and to get the support, encouragement and respect that they did from the folks who live around the park and saw the effort they were putting in to make it a place to enjoy. That park used to be a magnet for drugs and gangs, which has lessened considerably since the kids have been putting their love into it -- The Campbell Garden is now a mini sculpture garden."
The idea behind the Co-op programming is not only to keep kids off the street, but also to offer a comprehensive art education and provide job training. The skills that the kids learn in the Co-op programs will make them more eligible for employment in the future.
"Co-op Image is a positive place to be," 18-year-old Miriam Dean, a longtime Co-op apprentice, tells me. "You can't just sit around, you have to work on something."
And there's an added bonus. "The kids actually get paid to take these classes," Dick explains. "It's not much, but we set it up as an after-school job/apprenticeship. The bulk of our funding comes from city-run program grants from After School Matters that we apply for and renew every year. The city has commissioned us to produce the centerpieces for their annual fundraiser gala -- that funding and purpose drives the spring and summer curriculums. Mike Bancroft has also become very creative in finding alternative revenue streams through Co-op that provides work opportunities for the kids while providing extra funding for the more expensive programs (glassblowing) or allowing us to be more self-sufficient and less tied to the stipulations of the funding through ASM (i.e. the 30-1 student/teacher ratio). The Co-op Hot Sauce is a shining example of one of these alternative revenue streams that has kept us going -- especially in times of lean federal funding."
An art education is important because it not only teaches basic craft, but there are a slew of practical lessons to be learned, as well. Modern-day artists have to be entrepreneurs. Too often, even the highest level, formal art educations don't include any sort of business training in their curriculum. And on top of that, it's not practical for most artists to try to sustain themselves on art sales alone -- especially if their work is progressive or political and won't fit neatly above the sofa. Today's artists have to apply their creativity toward business ideas. They have to be in touch with their communities, open to other communities, and be able to communicate their ideas to other people in the most appealing way possible.
An example of this art-meets-business curriculum at Co-op is Co-op Clothing Tech, a small business run by youth apprentices that provides design and silk-screen printing services, which led a few of them to create their own side business: So Fresh Printing. When the kids who started So Fresh graduated high school, however, they moved on with their lives and Bancroft made the decision to let the company fizzle. "If we pick them up where they were left off they're no longer youth led. So that's hard. It takes a lot of work to get something to a place where it starts to sustain itself. But you don't want that entrepreneurial venture to be more than the mission in the end, more than the program itself. So I think that's the trouble -- always staying true to the mission while keeping the projects funded enough."
Every year since 2002 Bancroft and his small team of board members, teachers and volunteers manage to keep Co-op Image running. It is definitely a struggle, and Bancroft grimaces a bit while describing the immense amount of paperwork and pandering he has to do, but he is obviously proud of his work with Co-op and speaks of all of their projects with a paternal glow.
"I like to hear about where the kids are at now," Bancroft concludes with a warm smile, "and how much that has to do with Co-op is debatable. But I admire the connections that we've been able to sort of forge and I'm glad to be a part of these kids lives to the point that they feel like what happened here was important enough that they send us an email and tell us what they're doing. To hear about the places that kids have ended up that you never ever would have imagined would be where they are -- well, I think that's my favorite part of it."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.