What About Lanza

This is a letter to BuildaBridge supporters following the horrific mass shooting of children in Connecticut.

I want to wish you and your family, wherever you are, a very happy holiday season.  For many, like me, it is Christmas. But for others it may be Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day (which has just passed), or other holiday celebration.  This is a time, or should be, of joy, family, sharing, laughter, good stories and good food, hopefulness, peace and goodwill.  Many will attend services to renew their commitments to peace and goodwill, and the true “reason for the season”.  But for some, like me, it has been a somber and sad season.

Images of little innocent ones who had been slaughtered by a tormented young man with a weapon designed for war have been hard to remove from my mind and heart.  I don’t respond emotionally to crises.  It has always been a personality trait that in the midst of a crisis, of any kind, I am detached and think quite objectively about the safety and needs of the moment.  A day later however, the locked down emotions, begin to affect me quite intensely.

I have been reflecting on the Newtown murders for four days now.  My heart goes out to parents and family members of all the victims.  I have been asking myself, and maybe like you, what does this mean and what am I doing to make the world a safe place for children?  The core of BuildaBridge’s work is for the living Lanza’s of our world.  Children and youth who, with bottled up anger, living in the context of societal violence, a free market capitalism without social responsibility, inadequate family support, and the inability to feel safe themselves and communicate their needs, wants and feelings, see no option but to end it all and take others with them–in a final act of non-verbal communication.  They live in silent torment, and in the words of an African poet, “are a volcano waiting to erupt.”  You can help sustain our vision of a world where all children are resilient, experience self‐efficacy, and have a vision for their future by donating this season to our 3:30 campaign to provide much needed therapeutic art-making to some very deserving children.

I find it hard to identify with Lanza.  My parents were never divorced and we lived on an income a tenth of Ms. Lanza. Our house was a small block house, barely 1,600 sq feet, with only an oil heater in the living room to heat the house. We had no guns in the house.  My father never took me to a shooting range, preferring to take me to drawing classes, a speed reading workshop, and paying for trumpet lessons, and for all I am grateful.  That does not mean that I was not aware of guns, nor that my father was against them.  One day, my father asked an old man in the neighborhood to take me squirrel hunting one cold fall day–we didn’t see a single squirrel, but we had a great conversation.  When I was 12, my grandfather gave me his ancient double barrelled 12 guage shotgun that he had had as a boy.  As I learned, the barrels were made for older shells and the gun was basically unusable, and very dangerous to shoot.  Like most boys my age, we played with firecrackers and other potentially dangerous objects, but always with the watchful eyes of a cautious father, with the admonition that it is life-saving to respect danger–run from danger do not embrace it.  Later I would buy a .22 calibre rifle and my wife would buy me a beautiful 16 gauge shotgun for bird hunting–her gift to me on our first wedding anniversary. I still have it and cherish the thought that after nearly 43 years of marriage she would purchase a gift she thought I would appreciate instead of one she thought I should have–like a toaster.

It was also before the days of TV, computers, the Internet and video games. I cannot remember seeing any violence other than the one day my father was struck by a deacon with brass knuckles who didn’t like what my father said on a Sunday from the pulpit of our congregational church.  My father’s response, “I don’t think I was able to turn the other cheek”, a reference to Jesus response to violence.

Many years later, and on many levels, I can understand the world of Lanza.  Travelling and working in Africa, Central America and the Middle East, and living in Philadelphia, I have witnessed acts of violence and the results on little children so horrific and sad that, as a friend in Kenya once said, “Even God will not dare speak of them aloud.”  And I think in this essay, I will respect that.

We at BuildaBridge envision a world where all children are resilient, experience self‐efficacy, and have a vision for their future. BuildaBridge dedicates its resources to building the capacity of creative adults and local communities to fulfill this vision. We engage the transforming power of the arts to bring hope and healing to children, families and communities in the toughest places of our world.  This vision informs our work and articulates our passion to see the lives of children, so often neglected through no choice of their own, to build healthy, imaginative and productive lives.   Whether from the concrete and asphalt enclaves of the urban environment or the “informal settlements” of encapsulated poverty, our programs expand their world to one of creativity that resides in every person and outward to physical places of beauty that are just next door.

Ineffective public education systems, along with the breakdown of the family and other societal ills, have in many rural and urban settings, left hundreds of thousands of children behind, wasting and failing to develop a most precious resource – future human capacity.  BuildaBridge’s unique classroom model (The BuildaBridge Classroom) harnesses the power of art-making to re-engage unengaged students in the learning process and to increase the well-researched protective factor of “commitment to school”.   The particular ability of art to engage and utilize a variety of learning and cognitive styles, as well as the proven  ability of art-making to serve as a vehicle for healing trauma and promoting positive emotional expression make it an effective “partner” in teaching non-art subjects, be they science, history, mathematics, character development or social and life skills.  BuildaBridge also harnesses the most unique power of creating:  the use of art-making as metaphor.  Metaphor is a known method for using at-hand, familiar or old knowledge to teach new, complex concepts. Every BuildaBridge classroom includes an intentional plan for using what happens in the the art-making process as a point of learning for what happens in life – and how to respond to it with virtue, hope, and resilience.

Many, if not most, of the children with whom we work are accustomed to responding in life through external factors, often intrusive on their lives and souls.  Abused and neglected by parents and society, they respond and communicate far too often out of fear, mistrust, anger, and sometimes despair.  Their mothers, witnesses and sometimes partners to violence and other results of poverty, can be detached and just as non-responsive to the needs of their children, especially after long days of looking for work and permanent housing.  Affordable housing, and the need for relationship intimacy is not often found when one is so distracted with life.

Living in emotionally and situationally chaotic places, there is an unspoken yearning for peace, calm and safety.  Since 1997, when we began, we have learned and reflect contemporary research that children and their mothers need to basic things:  A safe creative space and an adult who cares.  We understand and create boundaries of safe spaces so children are free to be themselves and develop a sense of self-actualization—to become internally motivated by choosing positive virtues in their decisions in their lives and communities.  We also recognize, develop and restore the creative nature of children (and even their parents) in finding a voice to envision a future for themselves as they discover their self identities.

Through our committed and trained artist teachers, we commit to significant periods of teaching and mentorship with the children and families who find themselves in the tough places of their lives.  This work is by nature difficult, at times disappointing, emotionally draining, and requires a commitment beyond the ideas of “giving back” in a day of service.  Yet, we are often encouraged and rewarded with artist teachers and therapists who continue to serve and the observable difference that, at least for some, the human condition is preserved and improved by persistent and creative efforts.

Sit in a music class for mothers and their infant children.  You will observe a reattachment of mother and child through eye contact, meaningful touch and sweet melody.  Visit for a day in the forest on Forbidden Drive and you will witness the sheer joy of teenagers discovering bat dung, small reptiles and the cool waters of Wissahicken Creek—all drawn or sculpted in a classroom of reflective memory and scientific creativity.  Because of children being born to younger mothers, and teenagers being raised by their grandmothers, our work now encompasses children yet born and teenagers who are too often adults, with attitude.

Responding to these children and youth requires energy, creativity and essential knowledge and skills in human development and restorative practices.  Since our founding, a secondary goal of the founders has been to mentor younger adults in the best practices of teaching and classroom management.  Coming from artistic disciplines of music, dance, visual arts and theater (among other creative forms) these artists learn the values of education, social work and good parenting.  While BuildaBridge engages and has always valued the need for seasoned adults, we have also engaged hundreds of undergraduate and graduate interns, volunteers and paid artists to learn and carry on the vision.  As one intern from George Washington University said after a rather challenging year in Teach for America said, “I learned how to teach difficult kids during my summer with BuildaBridge.”

BuildaBridge is in a strategic turning point for the organization.  In 2012 our board approved a new strategic plan that calls for increased training, focused direct service and an engaged leadership and support constituency.   Our continuous planning and adjusting of programs and organizational has focus to meet the need, the times, and available resources.  We are a dynamic organization with flexibility.  During the economic crisis of the past several years we have relied on our organizational ability to adjust where needed while maintaining program quality and organizational integrity and effectiveness.  As we look to the next three to five years, and the retirement of the co-founders, our strategic plan, the energies of the board, and the work of the co-founders is focusing on the following major goals: 1) Intensely focus on direct service programs in Philadelphia that have demonstrated strong outcomes.  This means discovering and engaging children and their parents for longer term with more frequency through creative art-making, therapeutic goals and academic achievement; 2) Develop and share our working methods and models with a broad spectrum of people working with children; 3) Collaborating widely across disciplines for effective service and training; and 4) Identify and engage organizational leaders at the management and support level who will carry on the vision.

Since 1997 BuildaBridge has engaged 487 artists, served 3,143 children and youth in Philadelphia, and served 5,272 children and youth internationally.  We have trained 566 people at our annual Institute in Philadelphia and 380 people internationally. A 2010 Institute Impact survey of “alumni” revealed that 23.1% started a new program with the arts, 69.2% integrated the arts in current programming, and 100% use the concepts they learned in trainings they do and in leadership. Our work has spanned 26 countries in various direct service and training projects.  The most recent was with UNICEF-Haiti partnership to train 90 community workers working with children who experienced extreme poverty and difficulties following the 2010 earthquake where still 500,000 people still live in tents.

To date, BuildaBridge is the only arts education and intervention organization that has consistently worked in the homeless transitional system of Philadelphia for the past 10 years.  We encourage and applaud the special arts projects and events provided by other organizations throughout the year. In addition, individual artists and creative art therapists are utilized by agencies.  However, our consistent service work and training has given us a unique perspective and model for working with traumatized and “at-risk” children in educational and organizational contexts.  Our program model is replicable and we provide training regularly as stated above.  Our current project is to replicate the model through open source materials found freely on “wikis” and blogs.  Our goal in the next several years will be to enhance this material and extend our training virtually.

Our programs work because of strong collaborations.  People are often surprised that we do not run programming on-site.  Our goal has always been to maximize our efforts through effective partnerships and to assist them in their service to children where holistic services are provided. As a result we are supported through alliances with homeless shelters, charter schools, the School District of Philadelphia, local congregations, and international partners around the world.

Our programs, both locally and internationally, serve people who would otherwise not have access to quality programs for the group of people that need it most.  They cannot afford to pay and we endeavor to provide on a sliding scale and or/little or no charge to the families.  Recently, we contacted some of our usual partners where we are requested to provide services.  Their responses were sadness that funding had been cut for all but the very basic services.  Why is this critical?

For example, recently the School District Superintendent proposed closing 147 neighborhood school in order to consolidate schools and save the city $27 million dollars a year.  Already with a huge debt, the school district is unable to support the kind of programming needed for some of our children living in poverty.  We have a number important to us, 3:30.  3:30 is the hour and time when children and youth leave school and go home, often without guidance and experiences that are more important than keeping them occupied.  The creative arts, along with artist/teacher mentors, provide these children with the opportunity to envision a new world, work out their problems creatively, learn about the value and virtue of respect for collaboration and community, gain real-world skills in creative problem solving, and to become better people for their future success.  We have learned that there is real value in trained volunteers. We have also learned that committing to these children in crisis needs those who will “stick it out over the long haul” often without reward. We invite you to be a partner in our vision for a world where all children are resilient, experience self‐efficacy, and have a vision for their future. Can we together, impact in positive ways the future Lanza’s of this world?  Please give to 3:30.

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