Magazine / People

Alumna paints a better future for low-income kids

Susan Jenson in art gallery

Susan Jenson runs DAVA, a free after-school arts program for kids. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

When Susan Jenson got her MA in art at DU in 1998, she thought she was off to a career as a college instructor, teaching undergrads the finer points of Picasso, postmodernism and perspective. But that all went out the window when she set foot in Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA), a 17-year-old nonprofit that provides free after-school arts programs for kids ages 3–17 in the city just east of Denver.

“The first time I walked into a classroom with middle school kids they just captivated me,” Jenson says from behind her desk at DAVA. “I thought they were so incredibly interesting and complex and they had such good ideas, and so that was it. I started working here, and I’ve been here for the past 12 years.”

Under Jenson’s watch — she became executive director in 2002 — DAVA has more than doubled its offerings, adding a computer arts lab, a multigenerational family arts program, a portable arts school and a student-run public gallery to a list of programs that also includes a drop-in studio and a “job training” program where middle-schoolers learn about punctuality, accountability and performance while they create.

“We were not just interested in their coming here and learning art skills,” Jenson says. “It wasn’t an art academy where you would put up an easel and give kids a paintbrush and tell them to follow your instructions. Instead we were much more interested in what kids had to say — what their issues were and how to develop art programs around those things.”

So rather than going to the mall after school, or going home to play video games, kids can head to DAVA to sculpt, paint, film and draw. A staff of two full-time and three part-time instructors trained in art education — including Viviane Le Courtois (MA art history ’00) — keeps an eye on their progress.

And while some DAVA students go on to careers in the arts, just as many go on to work in science or medicine. A study begun in 2007 shows that kids who participate in DAVA have significantly higher grade point averages than their peers. That link to academic performance underscores DAVA’s role in supporting local schools and points to new models for learning.

“Creativity gives you this sense that you can solve every problem,” Jenson says. “The operating mode around here is that there’s a solution to everything. If you can imagine it, you can usually figure it out.”

Serving 900 kids a year — many from low-income or first-generation families — DAVA has proven success in keeping kids off
the streets, away from drugs and on the road to higher education.

“At the point at which I came here, there was this recognition that having kids learn within the arts was far more important than anything else I could be doing,” Jenson says. “And doing this in a community setting, where this gallery and this facility would be open to everybody, I think it also spoke to areas of social justice that were incredibly important to me.

“Not all kids have access to a safe creative space,” she continues. “This is a safe haven for kids to be creative and let their imaginations take them wherever they can go.”

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