How housing matters in real life solutions
VAIL — You won’t be surprised to learn that Jami Duffy did not keep her room clean, and once gave her stuffed animal collection haircuts so she could put stuffing and fur in her craft box.
In the fifth grade, she was a shopkeeper in a mock American colonies project in history class. Before long, she couldn’t pay her proverbial taxes. The mock banker three desks over wasn’t working that hard, but was paying his taxes just fine.
“I realized we had no choice but to revolt,” Duffy said.
So, she convinced her fellow fifth-graders to protest and carry signs during recess.
Duffy said all that to explain that you, too, can change lives. She runs Youth on Record, a Denver-based organization that works with kids at risk of dropping out of high school, helping them find a better track in life through music.
Duffy was in Vail for the Colorado Chapter of National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
Basically, these folks build and rehab low-income housing. These days the association is getting together with other agencies to try to set young people on career paths, and with school districts to narrow achievement gaps for low-income students.
Kids with Youth on Record will be on track for a career in Colorado’s creative industries, the state’s fifth largest industry, Duffy said.
“There is work here. If we actively inspire and develop this local talent, these are kids who would not graduate who are stepping into careers as soon as they’re done,” Duffy said.
Youth on Record also teaches several high school classes.
Partnerships pay off
Youth on Record works with the Denver Housing Authority, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Economic Development Commission. Or, more accurately, those agencies work with Duffy.
“If housing authorities are willing to branch out and partner with some of the arts organizations, we can ultimately elevate each other,” Duffy told 200 association executives during a presentation this week in Vail.
Youth on Record kids could use a little elevation.
Duffy said this is the first generation that might be less educated than their parents. In Denver, about 30 percent of students don’t graduate high school. It’s worse for poor students or students of color, she said.
Denver, she said, is constantly ranked at the top of polls for good places to live.
However, Denver also has the nation’s highest achievement gap.
In their neighborhood, a mile from downtown Denver, most kids don’t finish high school.
“These are real kids with real stories. They have a significant amount of talent, but they haven’t been given a chance to showcase it,” Duffy said.
That’s the gig
The program reaches many of these kids by employing professional local musicians. The students have learned the entire arc and art of putting out an album.
It is the only organization that we know of in Colorado, and potentially the world, that is employing professional local artists to address the dropout crisis.
Musicians are asked to perform, a lot, and for free.
“They actually make more for teaching a class with Youth on Record than they do working a gig. That way, they don’t have to be Uber drivers and bartenders,” Duffy said.
The musicians also get to use Youth on Record’s recording studio for free — yes, the group has a recording studio.
Youth on Record leveraged its partnership with the Denver Housing Authority to get the Denver Economic Development Authority to build a recording studio.
Part of the lease with the Denver Housing Authority is community outreach. So, every Friday and Saturday they host open lab nights. They’re also building a stage where they’ll hold community concerts.
It’s sort of an experiment in inclusion, Duffy said.
“People from different income levels do not tend to attend the same community events,” Duffy said.
Youth on Record is releasing its first album Sunday.
National and international musicians have recorded at the Youth on Record studio. They also work with the kids and give the group the music, which helps the program pay its own way.
“We have Grammy-winning folks selling out Madison Square Garden coming to spend their day in our studio,” Duffy said.
Those artists spend time with kids like Sly Guevara, 16, who was “very likely on the dropout-to-prison pipeline,” Duffy said.
Now he’s not.
“No one in the nation is getting the same opportunities I am,” Guevara said. “Youth On Record is preparing us to be professional musicians, producers, songwriters and engineers. We are blessed and happy to be part of Youth on Record.”
Guevara is already well down the road to a career as a rapper, producer and engineer.
“I just want say thank you to Youth on Record for providing me with this opportunity,” he said.