Pamela Pennywell and YMWAHA: Protecting Northside Youth

by Ryan Black    /  August 22, 2012  / No comments

Pamela Pennywell

Pamela Pennywell is the development manager of the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association. Photo: Pamela Pennywell

In advance of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert, Sampsonia Way is speaking with the five Northside community leaders who will be emceeing the event. This is the first installment in the Jazz Poetry Emcee interview series.

Pamela Pennywell is the Development Manager of the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association (YMWAHA), a Northside-based non-profit which has been working for eighteen years to improve the lives of children and families through art, with a particular focus on children and families of African heritage. She has worked with children for over 30 years and has been part of the organization since 2006. In August, she spoke to Sampsonia Way over the telephone about the YMWAHA’s programs, the Northside community, and her career working with children.

Why do you think the Young Men’s and Women’s African Heritage Association is so needed?

As a community-based agency, it’s critical to our mission that neighborhood residents, at-risk children, low income and moderate income families have access to arts education in a nearby community-based setting as opposed to a huge institutional setting. I think most people tend to remember things that occur in community-based settings more easily.

We also think it’s critical to introduce families and children in low and moderate incomes to art, because they would not necessarily be exposed to it if they didn’t have a community-based agency to advocate on their behalf. And in order for us to make sure that we have people who enjoy the ballet, or visual art, or media art, you have to attract them when they’re young, so that we have audiences when they’re 21, 41, 71.

What would you say is the most satisfying thing about working with children?

Seeing the growth and development that each one of them demonstrates. Be it their wide-eyed wonder, or their proficiency at a certain thing: for instance, children who never sewed before and then a year or two later they’re still involved in the program and they’ve progressed from a beginner to an advanced level, where now they’re considering becoming artistic entrepreneurs. That is what I am enthusiastic about.

Can you tell me about some current projects and programs that you guys have going on?

Absolutely. We have an urban garden that is right next to our building. This project is funded by foundation money through a collaboration with The Children’s Museum and Women for a Healthy Environment. From a once derelict lot we were able to hire some teens last summer who broke the whole area down, fertilized the soil, and now we have a garden and a beautiful asset that the community is able to appreciate.. We use it for an outdoor classroom, and it’s a year-round program, so even in the winter months the children come in and do arts programs to place into the garden for the next year. For instance, they’ve made stepping stones from cement and glass. Indoor session also include classes on how to prevent obesity and practice better nutrition. We teach food preparation, canning, and dehydration, the kinds of things that support self-sufficiency.

YMWAHA has a quilt guild. The ladies of the quilt guild are entrepreneurs and artists in their own right. They provide exhibits, trunk shows, workshops and classes from beginner level to intermediate and advanced. Quilting is a wonderful community activity where women—well, not just women, anyone who’s interested—can sit around a quilt frame and actually hand quilt an art piece. It encourages singing and storytelling, it’s just a wonderful communal activity for all ages.

Steel Pan Academy classes are available at our location. We have our own steel pan drums and we offer classes to children as well as adults taught by Master Artist Phil Solomon..

Rhyme and Release is a new addition to our programming. We have a studio here in our building and the instructor works directly with young people and encourages them to write what they feel, write about their surroundings, write about whatever meets their needs. Once they finish the writing process, then it’s the engineering process, they go into the studio, they learn about the different pieces of equipment and how to use them, and then it goes straight into the production process. They’re able to put what they wrote to music and walk away with a unique artistic product, a CD of their very own.

That’s a lot of goings-on.

Well, that’s just art. For education we have a program called EAGER: Education And Goals Equal Rewards, which is in partnership with Perry Traditional high school. This program works with children who might have great grades but are not sure how to get into college, they want to go but don’t have the proper skill set to achieve this goal. With this in mind, our staff assists with college prep and SAT testing, computer access, and career presenters to get them prepared for entry into school, and after they enter school we help with retention.

Our other education program is Youth Training and Employment. We work with youth between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. We teach them how to dress appropriately, use effective communication skills, understand accountability, time management, and knowing how to call off. We have been in touch with several corporations in the city who they say they have adults who they are trying to teach those soft skills, and we’ve been teaching them to teens for over a decade.. We have above average graduation rates, an excellent entry-level job rate, and I think our young people are highly motivated, they just need the guidance and the soft skill training that they don’t necessarily get in traditional schools.

Everything is art and education, even the quilt guild. They talk about how quilting has been an art form in many diverse cultures such as the Amish people, Mexicans, Hawaiians and African Americans…everything we do is art and education. Even in our EAGER program and Employment and Training components we have instructors that teach Microsoft Publisher, Word, and Excel, so students learn how to use technology in an artistic way as well as in a more mainstream productive way to help them gain employment.

So what is it particularly about the Northside that you like?

The Northside has a lot of diverse communities. It’s pretty spread out, which is always a good thing. Every community is uniquely different. Deutschtown is different from Perry North, which is different from Manchester, which is different from Spring Hill. Being located here in Central Northside, YMWAHA is fortunate to attract people from all around these neighborhoods.

What are some of your favorite places around the community?

Oh my goodness. I’d have to first say the Science Center. I love that place. The Andy Warhol Museum, we have a wonderful relationship with their staff. On a personal street level, I love walking through the Mexican War Street area. I think the houses are extremely unique, colorful, and eclectic.

So you’re going to be emceeing for the Jazz Poetry Concert. Who are some of your favorite poets?

I am definitely into poetry, I have several poets that I really adore. Nikki Giovanni for one. Maya Angelou. Julia Alvarez, who also has some wonderful children’s books that we have utilized here. YMWAHA has a longstanding relationship with RIF so we’ve been able to get her work and some other poets in bulk and distribute to the community-at-large and our students.

What are you looking forward to most about the Jazz Poetry event?

I’m going to enjoy listening to the diverse artists that are on the lineup. It’s an open-air outside community event that I’m looking forward to. I’ve been wanting to meet Israel Centeno, so that’ll be great, but I’m also interested in the music. I think I’m also going to also enjoy Luis Bravo, since I’ve never heard him before I’m interested in what he will do.

About the Author

Ryan Black is an impending graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a double major in Nonfiction Writing and Urban Studies. He plans to pursue a career in journalism and magazine writing.

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