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AAACC endeavors to build Western Addition cohesion

Wed, 08 Jan 2014 22:17:00
5 / 5 (2 Votes)
Article by:
Jennie Butler
Martial arts instructor Jim Larkin with students during a training session. Photo by Jennie Butler.
Every neighborhood needs a third place where both young and old can grow and connect with the community. In the Western Addition, there is an institution where everyone is given the opportunity to better themselves through art and education.

The African American Art and Culture Complex — AAACC — is a social and cultural core for African Americans in the Western Addition and neighboring communities. The complex is a 30,000-square-foot facility with art, dance and production studios, event rooms, gallery space, and a 203-seat performing arts theatre. Exhibitions from local artists, ongoing special events, and free or low-cost programs for adults and youth are featured regularly.

AAACC promotes constructive community change by providing access to Afrocentric visual, interactive and performing art. The complex is home to several respected Bay Area performing arts organizations and resident art associations.

After London Breed was elected District 5 Supervisor in November 2012, Executive Director Kimberly Hayes currently leads AAACC toward her vision of a dynamic, artistic, and Afrocentric destination for not just the surrounding community, but for all of San Francisco.

“We have so much potential,” Hayes said about the complex. “I am working hard to establish some robust programming here. I want this place to be bustling with events, and I want there to be things going on all the time.”

In her capacity as the executive director, Hayes plans to bring in more programming that showcases youth and African American talent and cultural expression.

AAACC’s after-school programs provide youths with a place that is alternative to school and the home where they can discover their strengths and build relationships with their peers. The programs are interactive, and participants benefit from specialized, hands-on instruction.  The young boys and girls who participate in the complex’s weekday programs build a second family with each other and with the AAACCs enthusiastic staff. In general, the youth programming acts to promote creativity and peer communication, as well as self-discipline and personal well-being.

Youths age 4–17 meet three days a week at the complex for an hour of kicks, punches, strikes and dodges. The classes teach disciplines from both karate and judo, and the participants are grouped separately according to their rank and experience.

There is more to the class than simple instruction of the Japanese art of self-defense. The martial arts instructors — brothers Jim and Henry Larkin — carefully weave in basic lessons in self-discipline, nutrition, respect for superiority and healthy relationship building.

“It’s helped my daughter avoid a lot of catty situations in school,” said Jasmine Morrison, whose 10-year-old daughter named Heaven has been coming to the karate and judo class for three years. “It teaches them how to respectfully disagree, and that’s a skill not even some adults can master.”

Youths who come to the AAACC also have the option to physically express themselves through the complex’s dance troupe — Talent Allstars.

Talent Allstars gives these youths the opportunity to train and perform jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. In dance competitions, the group has earned 10 local titles and one national title. Talent Allstars meets four days each week for an intensive hour-long class led by Nitty Thomas.

Thomas, 31, has dedicated his life to dancing. He grew up taking classes at the AAACC, and he later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in dance. Thomas travels from Los Angeles every week to stay involved in Talent Allstars.

“It’s not easy to make the trip, but I do it because I love this,” Thomas said. “Talent Allstars gives the girls something to call their own.”

Youths who come to AAACC also have a free space to write, record and produce their own music at the complex’s entertainment-industry-themed program — Project Level.

Every weekday, Project Level provides a space for youth age 12 through 18 explore their creativity through different media including song-writing, mixing music, photography, video production, radio broadcasting, and graphic design. Project Levels executive director, Richard “Big Rich” Bougere Jr. defined the program simply as, “a fully-functional recording label run by youth.”

Through talent and collaboration, teenagers at Project Level produce completely original, multi-dimensional work. The young artists have the opportunity to master various forms of production while they discover their own creative calling.

Eighteen-year-old Beronica Zelaya has spent 1 ½ years at Project Level, where she has been exploring her niche: singing and songwriting. According to “Big Rich” and other instructors, Zelaya “has the incredible ability to spill her life story on track.”

Soon, Zelaya will no longer be eligible for the AAACC’s youth programs. Despite this, Zelaya plans to become an instructor for Project Level in order to stay close to her family there. “I want people to experience what I experienced here,” said Zelaya. “The love and support is consistent.”

Project Level and martial arts give youths the opportunity to work toward mastering their own craft. All AAACC successful youth programming serves the center’s objective: to empower youth and adults through art, education, free expression and compassion.

AAACC Administrator Michelle Parker strongly feels that empowered youths take on a different role in society.

“When kids come to the AAACC they begin to understand that there are other adults who care about what happens to them,” Parker said. “When you know that, you behave differently.”

Parker believes this is what makes AAACC so crucial to the youth in San Francisco. The complex’s enthusiastic devoted administrators and instructors make anyone who enters AAACC feel like there is a place for them there, and that they have something unique and exceptional to offer.

“I think at our core, all of us as people — whether we’re young or old — want to feel valued and important,” Parker said.

July will mark 25 years since the AAACC first opened its doors to the community.

More information about AAACC youth programs can be found at http://www.aaacc.org/youth-afterschool.php, by calling 415.922.2049, or by sending an email to info@aaacc.org.

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