Inside Track: Creating a culture of opportunity for students
Executive Director Kim Dabbs says WMCAT gives students an outlet and a voice in a space that believes in their accomplishments.
Such derring-do is part of a list of 40 things Dabbs intends to accomplish before she turns 40. Her boundary-pushing forays provide her with a new sense of who she is and what can be accomplished when she refuses to allow apprehension rule the day.
“Once you get over that fear, you realize anything is possible,” said Dabbs, adding that there are some things she has tried that she does not do particularly well.
“I golfed 18 holes,” she said, hinting that a PGA tour isn’t likely. “And I run slow. And that’s OK. The point is I’m doing it and trying new things.”
Expanding one’s creative and occupational horizons are key reasons why, in September, Dabbs became executive director of the nonprofit West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology.
WMCAT’s two-pronged mission includes its work-force development programs for adults who are trained in in-demand medical fields. Then there are its youth arts programs for students from four Grand Rapids Public Schools high schools. The programs include some 20 courses, such as video game and skateboard design, fiber art, and “Project Junkway,” which involves buying second-hand clothes on a $5 per student budget and transferring them into wearable art.
WMCAT operates out of a spacious second-floor suite in downtown Grand Rapids. It has developed a partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools with an eye to increasing graduation rates. WMCAT also has partnerships with Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care, Metro Health and other agencies and businesses to train under-employed and unemployed adults for sustainable employment in the health care sector as pharmacy technicians and for medical billing and coding careers.
It mirrors the model of the Manchester Bidwell Corp., which has a 40-year record of success in Pittsburgh. Manchester Bidwell Corp. is comprised of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild is a multi-disciplinary arts and learning center that primarily serves public school students and fosters a sense of belonging and hope within the urban community. Bidwell Training Center is a market-driven career education program for adults in transition seeking meaningful employment.
Such a mission is all the more vital given the current arts education climate in Michigan, said Dabbs.
“We’re giving students an outlet and a voice in a space that, at its core, believes in and respects the accomplishments they make,” said Dabbs. “Our teachers develop mentoring relationships with their students, and that opens up a dialogue for greater understanding.”
Dabbs is no stranger to fusing art and technology in transforming people’s future.
Prior to WMCAT, she was executive director of Michigan Youth Arts, a position she held for six years starting in 2006. Under her direction, Michigan Youth Arts expanded its programming beyond the annual Michigan Youth Arts Festival to include statewide arts education advocacy initiatives. In 2009, it launched the first arts education policy forum, where more than 15 organizations joined together to craft the 2010 Michigan Arts Education Policy Agenda, a vision for advancing arts education for all Michigan students.
It’s clear Dabbs is completely sold on what WMCAT accomplishes with its students.
“This is the real deal,” she said. “WMCAT is able to impact the lives of the students who come here and actively transform their lives and build a strong community. We’re creating a culture of opportunity.”
Dabbs said she finds nonprofits like WMCAT all the more important. A first-of-its-kind survey in Michigan released in September reports annual spending for curricular support for arts education averages $4.39 per pupil in high school and $1.67 in elementary school. Moreover, the survey, which was sent to 4,163 public and private schools with a 20 percent return rate, said about 108,000 students attend school daily without arts instruction and approximately 33 percent of schools seek outside funding for arts education.
The study concluded there’s a strong link between students whose schools have high levels of arts education and performance on the Michigan Merit Exam, which includes the ACT college entrance exam.
None of this is lost to Dabbs, who earned an art history degree from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University and a master’s in public administration in nonprofit management from the University of Michigan.
“I feel very strongly we need to make sure the arts are embedded in the K-12 education system,” she said. “Here (at WMCAT), it’s not just about instructional learning but taking that instruction and putting it into action. It’s all about transformation and using arts to engage these students, to build their confidence and stay in school. We are the perfect catalyst to make that happen.”
Dabbs can’t remember a time when an amalgamation of nonprofit work and the visual arts wasn’t a part of her life. She believes viewing artwork through various periods of time serves as a barometer to understanding a community and its culture.
“It’s a voice we can universally share,” she said.
What kind of community does she see reflected when she views WMCAT students’ art?
“I get an incredible sense of hope,” Dabbs said. “There’s so much promise, so much of a willingness to take on challenges. We’ve become inundated with so much information that the visual arts can quiet that noise and give students a platform to be heard.”
The way to get this done is through collaboration, said Dabbs.
“I have found throughout my career that the best thing to do is build partnerships,” she said. “That’s the great way to turn challenge into an ability.”
That’s what she learned from a job she worked 15 years ago as bookkeeper for the Community Media Center, founded by the late Dirk Koning, a man she highly respects to this day. “I learned the power of people coming together with a shared mission,” said Dabbs. “That’s where I fell in love with nonprofit work with a shared mission.”
Given that, Dabbs said her husband of nine years, Stephen, helps keep her centered in a work-life aflutter with deadlines, projects and goal-keeping strategies.
“When you work in this sector, this isn’t a job, a career — this is your life,” said Dabbs. “I do this because I am so passionate about this, day in and day out. He understands this doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. I live and breathe it every day, and he does that with me.”
It’s that dedication to her work and the cause it seeks to fulfill that nudges Dabbs to occasionally do a spur-of-the-moment activity, such as the heart-pounding skydive two months ago.
“I did it at the last minute,” she said. “It was terrifying and it was fun.”
In November, Dabbs heads for southern Asia, where she’ll climb the Himalayas and later tour a mausoleum in Agra, India, better known as the Taj Mahal. It’s all part of the 40 by 40 accomplishments Dabbs is determined to fulfill.
“I think we definitely determine our own fate,” Dabbs said. “When we’re faced with a crossroads, what you do and what you embrace is vital.”