Five-year-old Avery Fasfirinn and his mother push open the battered metal door into the former warehouse that houses the Destiny Arts Center in North Oakland, and, instantly radiant with excitement, Avery rushes down the hallway to his martial arts class, Teddy Bear level.

He threads his way quickly through a tumultuous, back-and-forth flow of kids and parents and teachers getting settled for a day of classes. Destiny’s Youth Performance Company is also in the mix, connecting to leave for a show. This particular Saturday, the hallway traffic is heavier still: Destiny has organized a community meeting to talk about a sudden run of drive-by shootings in the neighborhood.

What’s happening in this place, says Stanford University School of Education doctoral student Lauren Stevenson, who is studying the program for her dissertation, is the celebration of imagination, a way for kids to practice their creative thinking skills and learn “to see the world as something other than what it is-and what that would look like and what they would contribute.”

Two years ago, the Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts Program made a three-year, $250,000 general operating grant to Destiny, making it possible to reach kids in more places. Since receiving the funding the program expanded from 16 after school sites to 22, where it serves in excess of 550 youth in elementary, middle and high schools. Nearly three-quarters of Destiny’s 180 students receive some kind of aid to attend its weekly classes, and many dozens more are part of Destiny’s after-school programs at twenty-five Oakland public schools.

Without Destiny, there would be hundreds of kids without programs that offer them life-changing avenues to maturity through dance, martial arts, and theater. But “it’s not just dancing or teaching the movements,” says volunteer teacher Nynke Koopmans. “We’re teaching the message.”
Testing and Evolving

After twenty years of programming, Destiny’s philosophy and techniques have been tested, evaluated, and modified. Born in an Oakland storefront, the center’s first program was martial arts for kids-a first step toward violence prevention. Dance followed in a natural evolution toward other kinds of physical movement. Next came the formation of a dance company, then leadership classes to take kids another step closer to maturity. The methodology has never changed: performing arts as a tool for social change, community-based, one kid at a time, and never in a monolithic, institutional fashion.
The center has moved four times since 1988; its staff grown to seven full-time, and fifty part-time, employees; its budget expanded to $1 million-all signs of success. It still doesn’t have a permanent home: its lease for 4,000 square feet of space in a charter school ends in eighteen months.

Wherever it is, says Artistic Director Sarah Crowell, Destiny is a place where children “feel they can be seen, an environment that for them feels safe physically and emotionally and connects them to a community that cares about them, where they have a voice, where they’re able to thrive.”

The center offers classes in martial arts, hip-hop, self-defense, modern and jazz dance, ballet, theater, youth leadership and capoeira, a Brazilian dance of African origin that incorporates martial arts movements. Its Youth Performance Company creates two new productions every year and performs them for the community.

Destiny’s message to its kids begins with the Warrior’s Code, six key words chosen by its founding director Coleen Gragin: love, respect, care, responsibility, honor, and peace. Kids know the code.

What distinguishes Destiny from some groups is the handbook that’s been compiled over the years, a best practices manual to nurture new generations of teachers. “They make what they do tangible,” Stevenson says. Destiny’s Youth Leadership Training Program also serves as an apprenticeship for students to assist teachers, mentor younger students, and take on more responsibility. Many of the center’s graduates stay on as volunteers or part-time paid staff.

Destiny does intensive self-study, asking the kids whether they are fighting less, whether they’re making lasting friendships, and whether they feel confident enough to lead a group. But Stevenson is doing the most extensive analysis yet. Last year, she followed the Youth Performance Company, watching a production from start to finish for her doctoral dissertation. That process, she says, reflects the power of Destiny’s approach.

“You start with a diverse group of kids from all over Oakland,” she explains. They spend time together, tell their own stories, and begin to form a collective vision. “Young people go through a lot of personal and social and relational development to get to the point where they form the group-then they spread that out beyond the group.”

Sharing it with the Community

The young performers go into the community to ask people what they’re concerned about, what they’re passionate about, what they’re experiencing, and then use that as part of the production. “They have the opportunity to give birth to something that didn’t exist before,” she says.

Destiny provides its special arts programming not only in Oakland public schools, but also at the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland and the Youth UpRising teen center in East Oakland. And it’s revamping its violence prevention curriculum for middle- and high-school kids, collaborating with important groups doing similar work: Oakland Leaf, Colored Ink, Youth Together, Melrose Leadership Academy, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Girls for A Change.

Building these connections between organizations creates a new, larger network, Crowell says, that maximizes their collective impact. “We can’t all do everything,” she says.

Little Avery is doing his best to spread the word, his mother says. “His kindergarten teacher tells me he teaches everybody. Whenever there’s playground fighting, he’s there trying to work out the problem.”

And he’s more than happy to show off his other skills, too. “Look what I can do!” he shouts and runs across the mat for a forward flip, no-handed. Then he bends his elbow, Popeye style, and you can almost see a muscle in his sparrow-thin bicep. “I’m strong already,” he says, with pride.