The Bushwick-born youth visual and performance arts movement Educated Little Monsters (ELM) is finally getting to claim its own space in the neighborhood. After nearly seven years of displacement and hostility from gentrifiers, and a year of nomadism, the program is settling into their new digs, where they cohabitate with Earth Arts Center on Madison Street.
“ELM is really big. We just want to take up space,” said Jazo Brooklyn, Executive Director and Founder of ELM. “And the crazy thing is that we want to take up our own space. If you’re in our community, you need to give us space. And when I say that, I’m amplifying a voice.”
The quest for a space of their own is baked into the group’s very foundation—they were searching for it before ELM even existed. Brooklyn saw the neighborhood changing, becoming increasingly gentrified. Though there were new community spaces like galleries and coffee shops, Brooklyn noticed that many of these places were not inclusive. Their doors were not necessarily open to those who had been in the neighborhood for generations.
It was when she noticed how comfortable the transplants had become with calling the police on young people of color in the neighborhood that she knew something had to be done to give the youth a place where they feel safe to be themselves.
“[The kids] were angry. They were really, really upset,” said Brooklyn. “And I’m like, this is the type of anger that they try to pull out of us that no one claims to understand. But our anger is valid. So how do we create through that anger? How do we make music and art through that anger?”
When Brooklyn founded ELM, it was just her and a group of kids practicing where they could find a spot—on street corners and in parks, mostly. Even in those early days, Brooklyn had around 15 Monsters, which she says points to how much the community needed a program like ELM.
Still, they lacked a physical space to rehearse in. Over the next several years, the program moved around, landing at Silent Barn for a while until May of last year when the building closed.
While they were at Silent Barn, ELM grew significantly. The program now boasts classes in vocal and piano training, songwriting, theater, visual arts, photography and videography, and dance. Fifty to 60 students ages 12 and up take part every week, the youngest dabbling in a bit of everything while the older ones—the Monsters of Brooklyn— focus on honing their preferred art forms and learn about the business behind art.
“Monsters of Brooklyn is more of the professional side,” said Brooklyn. “Those are the ones that are doing shows and we’re recording their shit in the studio, we’re getting their music videos shot, we’re teaching them about community, loyalty, how to be an efficient team… Also teaching them the ways that they can easily be exploited to make sure that they’re not exploiting each other.”
Brooklyn wants the program to be holistic, benefitting the students well into adulthood. To this end, they have been able to utilize their new space at Earth Arts Center to talk about healthy eating and growing their own food.
Throughout their time at ELM, students are not required to pay to participate. “There will never be a point where I will make people pay to participate in the program,” said Brooklyn.
Instead, ELM is funded by a membership model through withfriends, where supporters can pay a monthly or annual membership fee, or make a one-time donation. Membership includes free tickets to ELM events and access to ELM’s recording studio and coworking space, among other perks.
ELM is deeply embedded in the Bushwick community. Many of its young artists have performed at various venues and events throughout the borough, like the Brooklyn Museum and a street-renaming ceremony in Brownsville last month to commemorate Brooklyn-born NBA star Dwayne “Pearl” Washington.
The Monsters will be hosting some of their own events soon as well. This weekend, the first annual Monster Fest will take place on June 1 at Maria Hernandez Park from 1 to 7 p.m. From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the Monsters and their family and friends can enjoy face painting, jam sessions, and some graffiti workshops from Brooklyn Street Art. Earth Arts Center will also host a table to commemorate the organizations’ new partnership. Performances featuring the Monsters of Brooklyn will start at 3 p.m. until the end of the event.
Then on June 22, ELM will host its end-of-the-school-year showcase, where the Monsters get to show off the projects they have been working on for months.
There will be dance, singing, hip hop, and theater performances, as well as a photography exhibit, featuring students’ work centering on themes of domestic violence and police brutality. The showcase will take place at ELM’s new spot, 936 Madison St.—ring the Earth Arts bell. Non-member tickets for adults are $10-$20 on a sliding scale, $5 for anyone between 12-17 years old, and $1 for anyone under 11.
Although they’re done fighting for a physical space in which to create and grow and inspire one another, ELM will continue to make their voices heard and their faces and art seen in a neighborhood that increasingly neglects to reflect them.
“We know we’re the shit,” said Brooklyn. “We know what we’re doing is amazing. These kids know what they’re doing is passionate and it will change the world. It’s just, not everyone wants to hear our story.”
All images courtesy of Jazo Brooklyn.
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