OST Voices #25 | Sitar Arts Center | Maureen Dwyer, Executive Director and Jessica Leskin, Associate Director of Development and Institutional Marketing

OST Blog Series
August 9, 2022
Blog Post

Imagine a place where toddlers express themselves through movement, teens earn their first paycheck painting commissioned murals, and high school seniors gain workforce experience at world-renowned cultural institutions while earning a living wage. All of this happens at Sitar Arts Center — a 22-year-old community anchor in DC’s Ward 1 — where young people explore and develop in visual arts, dance, digital arts, drama, music, and creative writing from early childhood to young adulthood.

The arts are an essential part of education and humanity; they’re necessary to understand oneself, one’s world, and how we relate to each other. Every single child should have an abundance of possibilities and opportunities that should not be dictated by the income of their family — and that’s why Sitar exists.

At Sitar, most students are from families overcoming financial barriers. Sitar uniquely offers its programs on a sliding-fee scale based on income and family size with 80% of enrollment seats reserved for families with low-incomes. Each year, 900 students participate in our programs. Sitar students primarily live in Wards 1, 4, and 5 where accessible options for arts education and out-of-school time enrichment are limited. Our program model encourages students to come back year after year so they can continue in their arts, 21st century skills, and workforce development learning while benefiting from a nurturing community of artistic mentors and resources.

One Sitar alum recently told us: “Sitar Arts Center literally built me. They made me fall in love with art, it was practically my second home when I was a kid, I spent so much time there. I am eternally grateful for the lessons and passion that the Center instilled in me!” We work hard to foster a welcoming environment, where young people can be their authentic selves. We want every person in our community to know they not only matter, but that they belong.

Two young adults sitting on a bench smiling

Parents and caregivers appreciate that Sitar offers accessible, high-quality arts education, afterschool care, and summer camp for the whole family. Starting with Early Childhood Arts, little ones dance, sing, imagine stories, and create through bilingual classes for parent and child. School-aged students engage in Sitar’s Arts Afterschool, Arts Aftercare, and full-day Camp Sitar programs in which they can explore all the art forms through project-based learning, private instrumental music lessons, and access to technology and equipment for digital arts, music, and video production. Teens engage in Sitar’s Emerging Arts Leaders program, which includes field trips to local cultural venues, community service, and collaborative social justice arts projects during the school year. In the summer, teenagers are hired for a six-week internship through the District’s Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program at Sitar as mural artists, theater actors, or camp assistants.

Family members who are interested in signing their children up for any of these programs may register online. Registration information for Fall will be available on our website by mid-August.  

Building on more than twenty years of impact, Sitar finds itself in the midst of a truly transformational year. We have launched new and expanded offerings tied to workforce development and deepened our collaborations. Read on to learn more about some of our most exciting highlights.

A kid holding up a sign

Growing Our Future Workforce  

Building on our existing workforce development programming, we’re excited to launch a new workforce development program — the Bloomberg Arts Internship — for 25 rising high school seniors this summer, in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This new-to-DC program spans five cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and now Washington, DC. Focused on college-readiness preparation and professional development training, interns work at cultural sites across DC three days per week including the National Gallery of Art, National Building Museum, DC Independent Film Festival, Washington National Cathedral, CityDance, and 10 more. Interns also connect with mentors, build their social and professional networks, and prepare for college and career at Sitar Arts Center two days per week — all while earning a living wage. This program will continue to the 2022-2023 school year and next summer. As Sitar continues to grow, so do our students, and we understand that the support our students experience in their early years is still needed as they navigate the challenges and joys of young adulthood.

Collaborating for Impact 

One of the many ways Sitar is committed to amplifying our community is as a founding member of The Platform of Hope, a strategic network of Ward 1 nonprofits established in 2018. Working alongside Jubilee Housing, Jubilee Jumpstart, and Mary’s Center, The Platform of Hope partners with local families to build a strong social fabric rooted in racial equity and inclusivity. The program offers mentorship resources such as coaching and personal goal setting and trainings/services for families based on self-reported needs. When joining the program, families decide on personal and communal goals that evolve to new goals after their first year in the program. For example, The Platform of Hope’s Cohort B shifted their collective goal to advocacy and policy work to catalyze systems change and realize their vision for the future. Now in its fourth year, The Platform of Hope supports four cohorts totaling 75 families – many of whom are families from Sitar Arts Center.

In further pursuit of collective impact, Sitar Arts Center is a founding member of The DC Arts Education Alliance. Seventeen of the largest arts education organizations in the city, led by The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic ArtsLife Pieces To Masterpieces, Sitar Arts Center, and the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, have teamed up to train young people who are disconnected from or under-engaged in school and work to enter DC’s creative economy through an intensive education and apprenticeship program in technical theater, preparing them for careers as offstage theater professionals whose roles include lighting and audio engineering, set construction, scenic painting, rigging, and stage management.

Sitar also leverages artistic partnerships to bring DC’s top arts institutions directly to our community. Each week, The Washington Ballet, DC Jazz Festival, Washington Improv Theater, and Young Playwrights’ Theater all teach classes at the Center. When the pandemic began, our families expressed a need to address social and emotional trauma experienced among our students, so we launched a partnership with Project Create — an organization that offers therapeutic approaches to arts learning through instruction by licensed art therapists. Through the partnership, Project Create led weekly therapeutic arts classes for our students and families. In 2021, we also partnered with Levine Music to teach an early childhood music therapy program.

Looking to the future, Sitar is developing career training programming in creative industries and planning a major expansion so that hundreds more students can participate.

Stay tuned for more information on this exciting next stage!