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Farm to Turntable: Career-Tech in Action at Cleveland Boys & Girls Club

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 21, 2016 7 min read
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The tomatoes at the Boys & Girls Club on Broadway Avenue here are, in the words of Shyna Rose, “horrendous.”

She doesn’t mean they taste bad. Rather, the 15-year-old Shyna and her fellow high school students are having a hard time taking care of the delicate tomatoes at the club’s small farm plot.

During the program’s February-to-November schedule, the small triangle of land is home to peppers, collards, onions, potatoes, and other produce. And the students’ toil in the dirt is not just for kicks—the club has a shelf set aside for its crops at a downtown Heinen’s grocery store. The students also sell the vegetables directly to customers at nearby farmers’ markets.

The farming program, in its third year at Broadway Avenue, is part of an effort by the club to provide a broader set of experiences to the 125 children on average who come through its doors each day, close to a four-mile drive from the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena, where GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech Thursday.

The farming program provides students with basic skills, like taking directions from a supervisor and accomplishing preset goals. And in April, the club opened a new musical program in which students can learn to play instruments in a slick recording studio, complete with microphones, guitars, drums, and posters of musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Nicki Minaj. (More on that below.)

Rose noted that she and others at the Boys & Girls Club researched other farms as well as groceries and supermarkets to see how they dealt with produce. That kind of preparation, along with the morning work that they have to put in at the farm before they go to school, for example, has made her feel more responsible.

“It helps me with my academic work. It helps me with my schedule,” Rose said before she got to work in the plot on Tuesday. “Once I get in a certain groove, I’m OK.”

‘We Designed This Space’

The club’s chief development officer, Robert Koonce, knows the realities many of his students face and what they entail. Twenty percent of children at the club, he said, go on to college. For the remaining four out of five that do not, he wants the organization to help prepare them with entry-level workforce skills that many of them can’t get elsewhere. (The median household income in Cleveland is just under $25,000.)

“This would be a place where a child can come to learn how to be in a workplace,” Koonce said. “But they can also learn what production, distribution, sales, and marketing are, and how they fit into a business enterprise, so they can understand when they enter an entry-level position in the workforce outside of the clubs what role they play in that organization.”

According to figures provided by the club, in 2015, the farms at the Broadway club and others in Cleveland provided 250 onion bulbs, 200 peppers, 170 pints of cherry tomatoes, 130 pounds of potatoes—and 100 flower bouquets for good measure.

“They have a really good kind of friendship. They work really well together,” said Chelsea Duty, the farm site manager, of the kids working at Broadway site.

“My first time doing it, I was kind of nervous,” Antonae Morris, 15, said of the farm work, adding that when it came to selling the produce to people face-to-face at markets, “I really didn’t know how to speak [to customers]. I learned how to be a better entrepreneur.”

William Malone, age 16, says he plays wide receiver and outside linebacker on his high school team and is hoping to snag a scholarship to play college ball in California. So weeding and checking on the status of potatoes is a change of pace.

But it helps his daily routine to think about farming early, school early, and football practice late. And he likes that the farm allows him to be creative, noting that, “We designed this space.”

“You have to be able to sell it,” he said of the produce. “You’ve just got to learn how to get your hands dirty.”

Rap Session

Inside the club, in its new music studio, when 14-year-old Kamden Pearson needs some creative fodder for his music group, he draws on the abuse his peers throw his way.

“People say that I’m, like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re not good at rapping’ ... In return, I say, thank you, because I know I’m so good that you really want to be me. That’s why you’re hating on me.”

Kamden’s exuberant confidence aside, he’s in a place where he’s supposed to express himself and build discipline and skills for the future. The studio was built through a partnership between the Boys and Girls Club and Notes for Notes. The latter supports sound studios for the club nationally. Notes for Notes staffs it and provides equipment, and the club constructs it. Students learn instruments, recording, and other elements of music production. And there’s a no-censorship policy on what they get to say.

“They get to say some stuff,” Koonce said. “Every two months we’re burying a kid, or one of their staff members, in one case a staff member.”

But just because the young people can say what they feel, that doesn’t give them total freedom.

Ryan Easter, a Notes for Notes staffer who supervises the studio, doesn’t just want the kids coming in, idly messing around on instruments for a while, and then straggling out when they want. As someone who’s been producing music for 18 years and still does so part-time, Easter knows that’s not the way to make progress.

When they come into the studio, the young peope have to greet him, and they have to correctly pronounce “this” “that,” “these,” “those,” “they,” and “then” before they get to work, without beginning each word with a “d.” And at the end of each day, he discusses with them what they did in the studio the day before, and what they want to accomplish the next day. They also have to show some kind of material work on a song.

“Every day they come in with the object of being progressive, not just doing the same thing” they did the day before, Easter said. “They all come in with an energy to be better.”

As with the farming plot, ultimately, the studio is supposed to illustrate career options for those who come to the club. They may not become rap stars, but they may learn more about mastering, mixing, and making music in general.

Learning Their Roles and Skills

The group calls itself “Cool Beans” for the moment, but it’s keeping its options open as far as a name. Those with Pearson in the band include Donald Black, 14; Shanetta Bonner, 13; Denver Pruitt, 14; and Charisma Wyatt, 14.

Pruitt says one of his influences, the rapper Jayco, appeals to him because of the subject matter he deals with.

He doesn’t talk about nothing like shooting, gangbanging. He talks about, like, important stuff,” Pruitt said. “Everybody keeps on rapping about shooting, and they’re not going back to when they talk about love and stuff, like real things.”

The band members already have learned to make way for each other when one shows more skill than another. Denver originally started out playing drums, but when Donald showed immediate promise, Denver let Donald take over percussion, and he switched to guitar.

And the band expanded again through a chance encounter in school. Shanetta Bonner and Charisma Wyatt were already taking guitar and beat-making lessons, respectively, and were making a little music in school when Denver happened to pass by.

“We was walking down the hallway, and then he was like, ‘Come to the studio’ ... and he just said we could be in the band,” Bonner said.

When asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t in the music studio, they don’t say “out on the street.” They have other interests. Kamden, for example, says he’d be at the club, but doing graphic design instead.

But the members made the deliberate choice to be in the studio, and work together.

“The music that we make kind of keeps us on the right track,” Donald said. “It’s somewhat educational. It’s something to look forward to after school.”

Neither Candidate Up to Snuff?

As for the kids’ thoughts about Donald Trump and the RNC downtown? They don’t really see how it relates to them, and they view Trump in particular with suspicion.

Out in the garden, Tamara McCoy, 16, said she and her friends and family are “not big fans” of Trump. But she doesn’t think too much of Hillary Clinton either.

McCoy sees problems in Cleveland, like the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an economy she’s worried might go bad again, and the prospect that bad things could happen to her family. And she doesn’t look for hope from any convention or national politician.

“I don’t feel either one of them are going to solve this,” McCoy said.

Photos and GIF from Top: Shyna Rose in front of the shed where farm equipment is stored at the Boys & Girls Club Broadway Avenue site in Cleveland; teenagers at the club tend to the farm plot, which grows tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and other produce which is sold to local farmers markets; Robert Koonce, the club’s chief development officer, in the farm plot; Denver Pruitt plays in a brand-new band at the club in a new music studio that opened in May; the band plays in the studio, which represents a partnership between the club and Notes for Notes; Shanetta Bonner has a laugh next to some of the instruments available for kids to learn and practice on at the studio, which is overseen by Notes for Notes staffer Ryan Easter. (All photos and GIF by Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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