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Rosie Perez's Battle to Give Underprivileged Children a Chance

The actress sits down with GOOD to discuss education reform, the importance of arts programs, and what it was like to grow up on the mean streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

GOOD sits down with Rosie Perez and Phillip Courtney to discuss how our nation's education system is failing its youth--and how we can help. Image courtesy of Tara Rice Photography.

Most people know 51-year-old actress Rosie Perez from her work in films like the Academy Award-nominated Fearless, and iconic New York period piece Do The Right Thing. When you meet the 5 foot 1 fireplug the first thing you notice is that she’s strikingly beautiful in a youthful, ingénue way that seems to fill up a room. In this case it was the 3rd floor of the Aetna building on Bond Street, where we were invited to meet with Perez to discuss her passion project Urban Arts Partnership—an organization that helps underprivileged kids grow, learn, and ultimately find themselves through the arts. We were joined by Philip Courtney, CEO of UAP, a contributing writer to the NYCDOE Blueprint of the Arts, and a part of a consortium of arts organizations engaging NYC politicians on their vision for arts education.

Image courtesy of Tara Rice Photography.

Perez’s petite features are offset by her wide kewpie doll eyes and inquisitive gaze, which acts as curious counter-weight to her booming, authoritative voice. That voice, inflected with a Brooklyn accent that several decades in Hollywood thankfully haven’t erased, is what she’s known for. Now the same voice that catapulted her to the top has also made her an invaluable mouthpiece for the UAP. With recent appearances on The View and other outlets, she’s helping to give kids from NYC to LA a chance to have their own voices heard.

How did this program begin?

Rosie Perez: I was approached by Amy Poux [Founder of Working Playgrounds]. It was originally her idea and it would be in just one school. She wanted to create an art project [that would act as a] response to the tensions that were erupting in Crown Heights. It was pre-gentrification, and it was the Hasidic community against the African American communityand the kids were in the middle. They didn't understand the tension between the adults. So Amy decided ‘let's make an art project’ so they could better understand and [work through it]. I told her we should also address the angst and angry feelings among the children. That was really the genesis of the program.

At first when I met some of the young students they had this cloud over their heads. It wasn't just the cloud of ‘leave me alone,’ and coming from a school in an attention-failed community. It was a cloud of ‘are you going to fail me too? Because I was born into this situation and this environment? Are you going to look at me as a poor, pathetic child that needs saving?’ And I did not. I spoke to them in the way that they should have been spoken to, with respect and dignity and no judgments. If there's anything that I can proudly say that I contributed to this organization it’s that. It's that [belief] that each kid is their own individual, and we should never put any judgment on them. We should never pity them, we should expect everything, and help them find their greatness. Because that's what teaching's really all about, ya know?

You also grew up in an under-served part of NYC [Williamsburg, Brooklyn]. Do you see any of yourself in these children?

It's not what I saw in them. I'm a different person. They're their own person. What I understood in them is how frustrating it is to be a young person, to be a poor person, to be a young poor person of color, and to know that the adults in your world that are supposed to take care of you and guide you and make your life better think you're less than. Shame on the adults—but these kids have to pay for it. And then you wonder why they are angry or introverted, withdrawn or disengaged. And it's like ‘Well, I know what you think of me so screw you. I'm hurt by what you think of me, but I have too much pride to show it.’ I saw all of that and I understood all of that. How to address that I did not know, but that was where the partnership came into play.

I think there were 5 of us to start with. It was like ‘let's put our heads together and build this charity,’ and that's how it happened. So it's not that I see myself in them, it's that I relate in a certain way. And I give them a shot. I also have the nerve to just shut up and listen.

Rosie Perez. Image courtesy of Tara Rice Photography.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing NYC schools, or schools across the country?

RP: Ha! That's a big one.

Philip Courtney: For some context, NYC has the largest educational system in the country, 1.1 million children and counting, in 1600 schools. In respect to what we do, the biggest issue facing education is relevancy. Young people, especially under-served young people, as Rosie was alluding to, don't see themselves reflected in society. The whole education system is stuck in the 19th century in a factory model. Kids in rows, 45-minute lesson plans. Even though there's been really interesting and great innovations in education, it’s still an old model that doesn't work for the young people of today. And it certainly won’t work for teaching what they are going to need to know for the world of work.

Philip Courtney, CEO of UAP. Image courtesy of Tara Rice Photography.

RP: I think the biggest issue is that there's multiple issues. There's too many issues. It's a broad response. It's just overwhelming.

What are some of those issues?

PC: There's so much being spent on educational issues, but the real underlying problem is poverty. You can't solve the education issue, especially in New York City, without looking at issues of poverty.

RP: It’s politics. That's an important issue for me because I was born in Williamsburg, where the [meager] income taxes of that area directly affected my schooling. That's not fair! We're talking about children, not adults that have made certain decisions and are responsible for those decisions. A child doesn't make those decisions, yet they get punished. When I got into the child welfare system and was bussed to Upstate New York [for school], I was introduced to a world where there was no mold, no security guards, and the teachers were great. Simple little things like being given a pencil or loose-leaf [was a new experience]. And nothing has changed since then!

One of the perks when kids come to the academy is that there's food. There's stuff to drink. To a kid that doesn't have that, that's a big thing. I remember as a kid I always wanted to go to the Natural History Museum. When I was 9, I finally got there with one of my half brothers. We had saved our allowance, which was patheticit took us half a yearfor the train ride back and forth and maybe a hot dog. And then I go upstate and we're going on class trips to Broadway. And I think ‘Why can't I get that in Brooklyn?’

In regards to 21st-century technology, the world has evolved and human beings have evolved, and kids just do not think the same. Most importantly, they have access to the internet. They come to school and are told to take out ear buds, shut off iPads...but why? If that's how they're responding to the world, let's jump on that. Let's not tell them to disengage, let's tell them to engage. Let's bring those devices into teaching.

Fresh Prep, which Philip assembled through Urban Arts, is a program that breaks down the Regents curriculum. It’s a very engaged process where they download programs online, which kids have very easy access to, and we give them mp3 players.

PC: Fresh Prep is for kids who have failed the test maybe once, twice...five times. Here they'll cut out that culture and mindset of failure. The way they’ll re-approach that failure is through hip hop songs. And it's not just fun songs, it's songs that have strong curriculum content.

Students at Fresh Prep. Courtesy of UAP.

Who writes these songs?

PC: Have you heard the song ‘Classic Man?’ by Jidenna? ::Rosie sings the refrain::

I was riding my Vespa on my way to work today and this man in a van was blasting it [it has also recently been remixed with Kenrick Lamar]. It's all over the place! Well, he works for us, and created all those songs with our team. It’s really high-level, interesting contentbut at the same time very educational. It's engaging, especially for kids.

Who do you think this program most benefits?

PC: We really try to find students who are having specific issues getting through this very big, monolithic school system. Another issue is we still don't know what to do once students graduate high school. We want to send them all to college but it's just not possible or realistic. There's this whole focus on college, which is great, but a college degree is a very limited option for very many of our students. That’s where 21st-century skills, and arts education, and technology, and the field of technical educationand what we used to call vocational education back in the ‘50s—is a hot topic. Because every child, whether they are college-bound or not, deserves a great future.

RP: When you get students engaged and part of the process, and they see an end to a project? That's real achievement. And you feel you're part of the success story. You’re not just provided them with the opportunity to be successful, but also the feeling that they deserve that success, and that they can be part of that success. There's this wonderful girl that was just profiled on the show, her name is Olivia, and when I first met her she mumbled, and her body language was slumped. No one paid her any attention. I went over to her on the first day. She didn't talk to me, so I go ‘Are you are going to join?’ She just goes ‘oh, that would be cool….’ and looks down. But I stood next to her. And when I stood next to her the other students started coming towards her [and she brightened].

That same girl graduated from our program and got our Nagler Scholarship to Smith, where she graduated. That girl could have fallen through the cracks. She could have just been discounted as one of the ‘losers,’ as one of the kids that didn't want to participate, as one of the kids that had an attitude problem. All she needed was validation! We reeled her in through the arts because she was interested in the media side of it, and now she's into photography and music.

What is the Nagler Scholarship?

PC: Once a year we offer a $40,000 scholarship, for all four years of college, to one of our exemplary students. Nicholas Nagler is someone that Rosie's been partnered with since...

RP: He was one of our original board members! But it’s more than just money. It's not like these kids go off to college and we're like ‘Bye! See you in four years!’ You have to keep constant support systems in place.

“This summer, Urban Arts Partnership Teaching Artist Kelsey Van Ert taught 5th graders at PS 154 in Harlem the book Esperanza Rising,” says a press release from UAP. “To supplement their summer reading, both classes investigated their own family histories and wrote poems about the immigration stories of their families.The students learned about tableaus, a basic theater technique, and how they can enhance a live performance. They then worked in groups to create tableaus and turned them into 5 minute shows.”

You just received a grant from the New York education system. What do you have planned for the school year in terms of new projects?

PC: A new program close to Rosie’s heart is called ‘Story Studio.’ It's an English language program that is meant to improve fluency throughout New York and LA.

RP: To keep us moving on, I frequently ask people to give money--even on my twitter feed. I get people asking me ‘when can you come to my state? When can you come to my town? I need this for my kid’ But it's money—and money is so important. The grants are so important. Private donations are just critical. There was one year that this organization was going to go under. I remember calling up Rosie O'Donnell, when she had her show, and I was in tears… and I said ‘you have to help me. You don't know how this is changing lives.’ She told me ‘you have 30 seconds’--I wasn't booked; she just did that as a friend. I was so nervous I just said ‘Anything! Anything you have! We'll take a dollar!’ and we got envelopes upon envelopes of $1 dollar bills and 5 dollars bills,10s, 20s, checks just poured in. And we were able to survive that year. The councilman of the arts at the time, Dick Schwartz, called up and gave a grant. I went up to Albany to ask Pataki for a grant, and that's how we survived. And look at us today!

It may seem tacky, but when it comes to kids I have no [laughs] all. And that's what we need. Private donors, we need corporate donors, we need sponsorships...We need more so that we CAN response o these people on social media and say ‘Yes! we have enough money to come to your state’ … that's our goal. To one day be nationwide.

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