On and Off the Hook

How an Oakland storefront performance workshop helps kids grow beyond their ceiling

Seems like everywhere we turn these days, we’re seeing Destiny Youth Arts. Whether the occasion is the San Francisco Hip-Hop Dance Festival, the greeting of dignitaries from Barbara Lee to Desmond Tutu’s daughter, an in-school appearance to promote peaceful conflict resolution, or a benefit for a laundry list of nonprofits, the multicultural crew of young performers has the skills and the energy to be ubiquitous. Blending martial arts, dance, theater, and spoken word in performances that they develop themselves (with adult guidance), the sophistication of their art makes even professionals go gaga.

After a visit to Destiny’s three-storefront studio space on San Pablo Avenue, it’s easy to dissolve into warm fuzzies about “the kids.” In one room, three- to six-year-old “teddy bears” chant the principles of self-defense, while in another, an older class proclaims “I Am Somebody!” in increasing volume while rising tiptoed, hands in full finger-waving twinkle. But to call these young ambassadors “kids” goes against the grain of Destiny’s efforts to ground personal identity in a concept of human rights, and to raise children as young people, with all the responsibility, expectations, and equanimity that entails.

If this sounds hippie-dippy, performing arts director Sarah Crowell sets us straight: “Kids work out whatever funk they have here. We have one girl with a history of violence, who had been in juvenile hall a number of times. She had a really hard time [slowing down for] the meditation. Well, she had to do it. And she described its effect this way: People get in her face now, and she can take a breath and walk away. Whereas before, she would just hit ’em.”

At a time when the economic downturn parallels a decline in philanthropy to local groups, MacArthur Flournoy, the center’s first full-time executive director, has the unenviable task of directing a community-based arts organization “radically committed” to turning no student away for lack of funds. “Our enrollment is stable, but income from class fees has decreased fifty percent,” Flournoy explains. “In the past, [to perform], we’ve been, ‘You want us; we’re there.’ But at what cost? We have to be more efficient. We have to grow beyond our ceiling.”

Crowell brought dance instruction to the space in 1989, and having witnessed its growth from serving five children to approximately two hundred, she has faith in Destiny’s ability to grow and effect change. Recalling the ballerina dreams and classical training of her childhood, she adds, “Destiny is not about what kind of body you have; it’s about [saying], ‘Let’s move.’ We create a safe environment for young people to express themselves in their own bodies. If you want a kid to not be involved in violence, not be a victim of violence, and perhaps to interrupt violence if they see it, they must have a really strong sense of themselves.”

The center is careful to note that this winter’s recital is not the professional-grade production of fully realized work that characterizes its three-night runs in the spring. But whatever the case, Friday evening offers more than your typical holiday pageant, with proceeds to benefit the center.

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