Art in Action: Supporting Chicago’s At-Risk-Youth

The 2020 Youth Art Winner displays her work at the Chicago Urban Art Retreat Center’s Youth Fest


By Jacqueline Lewis

It’s difficult, maybe impossible now, to go one day without seeing heartbreaking news about violence and fear rippling through Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. However, the plague of crime and grief in the city can obscure notable successes borne from a great deal of resilient creativity and a love of culture.

Many collectors and arts patrons in Chicago, as well as around the world, are familiar with the groundbreaking art and community efforts of artist Theaster Gates, who has founded multiple arts organizations in areas facing challenges foreign to most neighborhoods in the city – Gates’s Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative, Chicago Arts & Industry Commons, Rebuild Foundation, and the Stony Island Arts Bank have become dynamic spaces for artists as well as their communities. 

CGN wanted to share the missions and efforts of several additional area arts organizations, many of which have been operating for decades to support Chicago’s youth one student at a time. Each one is devoted to cultivating and facilitating impactful programs while utilizing arts education as a vehicle through which to bolster underserved communities. By harnessing their energies towards furthering their education through creativity, who knows, one of the students in these programs could become the next Theaster Gates. 



Located at the top edge of River North, Marwen offers free visual arts classes and college career programming to Chicago’s middle and high schoolers, with courses ranging from color theory to photography to social responsibility. The organization has recently launched The Artist Roster, which exhibits art from local emerging and teaching artists and alumni.

Marwen sees art as a vehicle for social change, leadership development, and a path to employment and seeks to inspire young people to build their future through art.

A former student testified, “Marwen made me more comfortable with myself and helped me become more involved in my community.”


Chicago Urban Art Retreat Center 

North Lawndale’s Chicago Urban Art Retreat Center (CUARC) offers workshops, women’s retreats, and volunteer opportunities, in addition to free youth programs that work with students where they are, at any age, and whether or not they are in school. 

Director and Board President Dianna C. Long shared a story with CGN about the program’s impact on just one student, emphasizing that tangible successes are what these organizations hope to accomplish.

“Demarcus and his older brother Chris came into our art program when they were 6 and 7 years-old. Demarcus clearly enjoyed making art. I remember we were working on writing and illustrating a little book about family for each child, and Demarcus was very frustrated. When I offered to help, he told me that he could not spell or write. I had him tell his story to me so I could put the words into his book and he made the pictures. He revealed that this dad was in prison, and his mom was in a drug treatment center. He and his siblings were living with his grandmother.  

After a year, I noticed that Chris no longer came to art, and Demarcus told me Chris had joined a gang and had also said he was too old for art. Demarcus learned to read and write, and he continued to enjoy making art. Quite a long time later, a very tall Demarcus came to the door with his family for our Christmas giveaway. I didn’t recognize him, but he remembered me. It was a tearful reunion. I was so happy to see him. He never joined a gang or been in trouble with the law.”


Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy

Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy is a 40,000 square foot center serving the youth of Kenwood, Woodlawn, and Bronzeville. Since 2011 Little Black Pearl has combined art and more formal education, focusing on STEAM studies and prioritizing creativity, culture, and entrepreneurship skills.

The organization believes that “no gift is as precious as a child.” Because students entrust their hopes, needs, questions, and talents to their leaders, in turn, LBP attests they must guide, support, and challenge them to reach their full potential. Through programs like Arts = Smarts, and by exhibiting student art for sale, LBP offers its students opportunities to pursue a career in the arts.

Aware of the challenges urban youth face LBP aims to provide a safe environment led by positive role models who offer can offer students a physical and emotional alternative in which to creatively explore instead of turning to more destructive outlets.



SkyArt, based on Chicago’s South Side, offers visual art programs for students 5–24 years old and brings consistent and free art education to areas of Chicago with few other cultural opportunities. 

What started as a passion project with one employee and 18 students has flourished into a bustling organization whose mission is to “transform the lives of young people who call these underserved parts of the city home.” Classes include cultural field trips and a year-long program for serious art students called Project 3rd Space.

Studio programs utilize an approach called SkyWay, which blurs the lines of formal art education and the less subjective experience of art-making. SkyArt also runs school and community programs that venture out to classrooms and other community venues, bringing the art directly to the students. A beautiful artist garden on site covers four city lots.


Firehouse Community Arts Center

In 2003 Pastor Phil Jackson hosted hip-hop services for young adults in North Lawndale. After noticing that people with a passion for the arts were coming from all over the city, Pastor Phil began the early stages of Firehouse. With a mission to “interrupt the cycle of violence among youths in North Lawndale through the power of the arts” Firehouse offers year-round arts programming as well as mentorship and career development opportunities.

Using what they call the Theory of Change, Firehouse guides participants to discover their worth and mission in a safe, loving space while sparking an interest in the arts and working to prevent violence by channeling art and creativity. For Firehouse, the goal is for students discover their life’s purpose and forage their own path while halting violence cycles.