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From grief springs Show Me Arts Academy

Frustration gripped local singer and actress Marty Casey in the days after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of then-Officer Darren Wilson. This weekend, a little more than six months later, Casey and 10 other people launched Show Me Arts Academy, the organization born from her call.

“When I look at those babies that are on TV right now and we’re so angry about how they have handled their frustration, unless you have lived what they have lived you don’t know what they are feeling.”  Casey said at an event at the Regional Arts Commission four days after Brown’s death.

She spoke during a meeting to plan artists’ actions addressing issues raised by Brown’s death. Casey pleaded for the creation of an arts organization to provide St. Louis youth with a chance to constructively harness their energy. 

“I told them that I believed I had the answer that is not a cure-all, but is truly a start to where we can immediately show these kids that we love them and we care enough about them that we want to give back,” Casey said.

The performer made it clear her program wasn’t a critique of all police, “We want to make sure that they are secure and [know that] not every police officer is bad and they’re going to hurt you.” 

Show Me Arts Academy launched with a full day of arts classes for children ages 12 to 18. Students were welcomed Saturday morning to the Tandy Recreation Center in The Ville neighborhood. They sampled  different arts practices, from dance and vocal training to painting and learning to be a radio DJ. The students received lunch that was partially donated by the North Oaks McDonald's franchise and partially made by arts instructors. After lunch, students were able to choose intensive classes in a discipline selected from their earlier experiences. 

Tayari Chambers , 12, painted a portrait with the words "let your light shine" Show Me Arts
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
Tayari Chambers , 12, painted a portrait with the words "let your light shine"

A little help from new friends

St. Louis Director of Recreation Evelyn Rice-Peebles helped make the day possible. After hearing Casey's impassioned speech at the Regional Arts Commission in August, Peebles offered space and buses free of charge to develop the program.

“When you talk about turning a person’s life around, we never miss the importance of academics, we never miss the importance of sports. But we often miss the importance of arts. And so to make this available to children at no charge is just enormously exciting,” said Peebles.

The offer surprised Casey and left her grateful.

“To be honest I feel like I hit the lottery, and I don’t even know what that feels like because I haven’t won yet.” she said during a subsequent RAC meeting.

Since Peebles’ initial offer, the two women have had countless conversations about the academy’s programming and launch.

“We have met and talked and met and talked and met and talked and cried and met. Because it’s emotional,” Peebles said.

Casey’s personal story compelled Peebles to support the project. Casey spoke of her own troubled home life as a teen and penchant for fighting. The arts gave her a choice — a choice she hopes to offer others.

“You come to that fork in the road. Either you go to the left and you might go wrong or you can turn your life around and go right. The arts really pushed me in the right direction,” Casey said.

Enthusiastic instructors join the effort

Judy Mann met Casey while performing "Menopause the Musical," and joined Show Me Arts to teach improvisational classes. She said improv creates a space to examine specific circumstances that stemmed from Michael Brown’s death.

“We can explore all those situations in an artistic way and in a really safe way,” Mann said, “It’s about communication because, really, at the crux of all this is the need for better communication.”

Casey’s cousin Dwayne UpChurch, aka DJ Church spent the day teaching kids internet radio and DJ techniques. 

“I feel like if we can touch one life, one kid's life we did a grand thing. But with the core and the crew and the staff that we have we're going to touch many lives.”

Laura Akermann agreed. Ackerman is a long-time performer from St. Louis who also stepped up to teach. She said each participating educator sees the arts as a major force in their lives.

“We’ve lived happy lives because of it. Because we love what we do.”