African Heritage Association raises academic achievement

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According to a 1999 report by the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, arts education has a positive impact on the academic success of low-income students. The study compared low-income, high arts involved students with high-income, low arts involved students and found similarities between the standardized test scores and dropout rates of the two groups.

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HELPING HANDS—Walter Smith, Sheila Washington, Charon Battles, Janice Parks, Eric Asongwed. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

While these results show how an arts education can narrow the achievement gap in urban school districts, many of these districts are being forced to cut their art programs due to budgetary restrictions. This discrepancy has been the motivation behind the Young Men & Women’s African Heritage Association, a non-profit organization providing arts, educational, and cultural programs to at-risk children and families.

“Our mission is to provide quality services to children and families, particularly families of African heritage,” said Pamela Pennywell, YMWAHA’s development and events manager. “Everyone has a level of creativity and if we don’t tap into that level of creativity, it’s more difficult for children to understand concepts that are straight academic.”

At YMWAHA’s annual “Helping Hands,” fundraising gala, the organization took time to honor their retired longtime director and co-founder Janice Parks. Held at the Pittsburgh National Aviary on June 26, the event also served as a fundraiser to support the non-profit’s Nia Cultural Arts & Education program.

“The goal of ‘Helpful Hands’ is to raise funds for Nia Cultural programs and bring together community leaders, organization administrators, partners, collaborators and program alumni and others who have been impacted by YMWAHA,” said YMWAHA CEO Eric Asongwed. “This gala also gives us the opportunity to honor Ms. Parks for her 18 years of dedicated service to YMWAHA, the community and the Greater Pittsburgh area.”

“It was an opportunity for us to honor Janice Parks who was a cofounder of this agency. She was with us for 18 years before she retired,” Pennywell said. “She’s very much connected to the community. She’s been here in the community so long; she’s always asked to speak about the condition of kids and families.”

Under the Parks’ leadership, the organization has not only become a fixture of the North Side community, but also the entire Allegheny County region. Their programs include teen employment and training, Saturday school, summer camp, and the Nia Adult Quilt Guild.

“We’re recognized as a leader in the community. If someone has a problem, they’ll call here; they’ll come here because they know they can talk to someone,” Pennywell said. “I think that we are an asset to the community. We collaborate with much larger agencies and we bring something that is critical to the community.”

As an example of the impact the arts have on academic success, the graduation rate for students enrolled in YMWAHA’s programs is 93 percent on average. Some of their many arts activities include dance, steel pan drum ensemble, mural painting, and sewing.

“We’ve noticed when children take part in activities like murals or sewing, it helps their math skills. Using that method encourages them. The same holds true for music. Learning timing helps children with memory and math,” Pennywell said. “So there is a direct correlation.”

YMWAHA has also expanded their educational programs to include health and nutrition. They recently acquired a vacant lot and turned it into an urban garden.

“Our children involved in the urban garden their wellness is critical. The urban garden is critical in the current economic climate. To be able to grow your own produce is critical,” Pennywell said. “They’re learning how to prepare foods in a more natural way.”

On Sept. 29 and 30, YMWAHA’s exhibit will be open to the public as part of the city’s Radical Works Days.

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