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Open house at Broad Street Studio
Photograph by Scott Lapham

It is a point of pride with AS220: the hundreds of shows it puts on each year beckon audiences of all ages and circumstances. By 1998, however, as AS220 itself began to mature, its leaders realized that behind that boast, youths comprised only 8 percent of its audience and artists. AS220 had a road show that intermittently toured Rhode Island middle and high schools, but it was time to do more. With support from the The Wallace Foundation, it embarked on a campaign to triple the percentage of youths among its audiences and performers.

It already hosted a youth leadership initiative and soon established a teen 'zine called the Muse Union. AS220 first worked with a couple of public schools, including the alternative Met School, but soon concentrated its attention on the Rhode Island Training School, five miles down the highway behind a 10-foot fence in Cranston.

Developing photos in the AS 220 Community Darkroom
Photograph by Scott Lapham

Crenca had met an inspiring young poetry teacher named Demian Yattaw who taught at the juvenile facility. He sat in on Yattaw's classes, and in November 1998, AS220 organized arts and community leaders to hear Yattaw's pupils read their poems in public for the first time. They called the event Impact.

It was an electrifying evening. A woman offered to publish the poems at her printing business, and there now have been two such editions and subsequent Impact performances. Arlene Chorney, Ph.D., principal at the Training School, said that night "was our turning point, when we opened ourselves up to the community."

Crenca and his colleagues were hooked, too, and soon he and others were spending every Friday afternoon inside the training school, teaching classes in writing, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban drumming and photography, with support from the Rhode Island Division of Children, Youth and Families.

Prison officials believe the writing and arts classes have improved discipline within the overcrowded facility. But they haven't worked miracles. Last winter two of Yattaw's former students were killed on the streets of Providence. One 17-year old, a community correspondent for AS220's teen magazine, Muzine, was killed after cutting a line outside a club. Another was gunned down in a dispute over drug turf, a day shy of his 19th birthday. National Public Radio listeners knew the latter student and his troubles from his taped contributions to a  "Prison Diaries" series in 2001.

Yattaw said he learned not to judge the youths he worked with, and to appreciate "that sacred moment when we shared a trust and a young man put his truth on the page." Yattaw credited Crenca with "taking a very modest program and expanding it in a daring way. It's easy to get defeated. But Bert's been doing this for three years. He tries to get the kids to be artists. It's an amazing thing to sustain that belief."

Crenca realized that it was not sufficient to offer classes to these troubled youth while inside the Training School. Photographer Scott Lapham, who had lived at AS220 and manages its community darkroom, had been offering an eight-week, intensive photography course for teens during the summers, but felt it was only attracting kids "who had their aces all in a row."

So they decided to open a separate AS220 facility in Providence's South Side - the poorest part of town -- to host free photography classes for youths at risk and those coming out of the RITS. With seed money from the Wallace Funds grant, the Broad Street Studio opened its doors on Jan. 2, 2001.

AS220 quickly formed alliances with other groups working with troubled youth, and expanded the offerings at the Broad Street Studio. It recruited teens for jobs painting murals, playing music gigs, and taking portrait photographs. The budget for Broad Street Studio soared to $260,000 a year.

Joelle Jensen, former director of youth programs, said AS220 was able to make an immediate impact "simply by being humble about it. The experience taught me that if you want to pull something together, it's better to get every community organization involved, rather than trying to compete with them."

Vincent Marzullo, Rhode Island director for the Corporation for National and Community Service, said that with the help of VISTA volunteers, AS220's work has taken on a new dimension. "It really goes beyond what Bert championed for the first 10 or 15 years. It has now become a true community mission," Marzullo said.

Crenca said he never fails to be moved by the variety of art and performers he encounters at AS220. "But I honestly have to say the most challenging and important thing we are involved now in is the youth program," he added. "It's what keeps me up at night and plagues me in a way. It's what possesses me more than anything else."