Through the arts of the African diaspora and African cultural traditions, the Youth Summer Arts Program and Learn and Earn supported joyful learning in Homewood.

  • Summer camp and Learn and Earn site for children of all ages
  • 40 campers and teenagers studied dance, drumming, martial arts, gardening, and more
  • Seamlessly blends learning with cultural tradition, self-affirmation, and community for children of color

By Faith Schantz, Contributing Writer for A+Schools

For Erin Perry, executive director of the Legacy Arts Project, the concept of “legacy” has more to do with the future than the past. Since 2004, the Homewood-based organization has focused on deliberately passing on the cultural traditions of the African diaspora to children and adults in majority Black neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh. Rather than maintaining traditions for the sake of preservation, Perry says the work is to “create the things that we want to see in the world” for a better future.

Since 2015, Legacy Arts has run a summer camp for children, adding a “Learn and Earn” component for teens the following year. This summer, 20 children aged five through 13 participated in activities ranging from West African dance, drumming, and the Brazilian dance/martial arts form Capoeira, to arts and crafts, smoothie making, and swimming, a rare opportunity for many of her campers.

The same number of teens worked on the camp’s kitchen/maintenance crew, built and tended a garden, served as apprentices to teaching artists, and helped prepare for “Dance Africa,” the organization’s signature summer event. Citiparks provided meals, and partners including Assemble, CMU, and Women for a Healthy Environment provided programming.

Legacy (31)

“Not only are they learning, but joy brings healing.”

– Erin Perry, executive director

But Perry wants more for both the campers and the teens than the ability to perform a particular dance move or to plant a garden. Children in underserved communities carry “all that has run downhill onto them,” she says—another kind of legacy that can show up in a lack of confidence, envy, and low self-esteem. Along with modeling positive interactions and resolving conflict in healthy ways, she and her staff held twice-daily gatherings, based on African social traditions, to affirm children as individuals and build community.

“How do we create spaces for people to be able to be seen and heard? How can we facilitate healthy dynamics where people can…grow in their capacity to communicate with one another? This is the work that we do,” she says. Those goals are reflected in the outcomes she measures. Success looks like “a student who has overcome a difficult moment,” children helping one another, or a child who is motivated to create something without adult intervention. When children are given opportunities to immerse themselves in what they’re doing, she says, “not only are they learning, but joy brings healing.”

One of Perry’s dreams is to be able to take campers out of state, for example, to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, or to the Gullah Islands in South Carolina. In her view, the benefits would surpass exposure to their history. Experiencing “the vibrations from being in a different geography,” or just breathing different air, can start a process of self-discovery.


With additional funding, Legacy Arts Project would organize long distance field trips for campers, traveling to cultural landmarks like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture or to the Gullah Islands.

With six other local organizations, Legacy Arts has participated in two successful virtual fundraisers. Collaborating to capitalize on their joint capacity, Perry says, is one way that “we’re thinking intentionally around what we can do to continue to support our organizations and the work that we do.” When it comes to where dollars are spent, she notes that the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement has produced “a bit of a rainfall of support” for groups that serve Black communities. She hopes that will be more than a temporary trend. While it’s in “the nature of being Black in America” to make do, “there’s no reason that we should consistently think of ourselves in this position of scarcity.”

The earth is abundant, she says. And that should be a shared legacy.

What if we made more public and private investments in culturally relevant, affirming, and sustaining summer programs for Black and Brown learners and other learners of color?

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