15 Years of Dreaming and Convening

Me and the cool kids: With the PAA All Stars following the 10th annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp in 2011.

Me and the cool kids: With the PAA All Stars, some of the “Grandmasters,” following the 10th annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp in 2011.

By: Santina Protopapa, PAA Founder 

Since I was six years old, I’ve been finding ways to make my crazy ideas a reality. My parents were the first people to help make things I dreamt up come to life. Later, it was my teachers in school and then it was Bob Santelli, my first boss and mentor who helped launch my career in arts education.

Progressive Arts Alliance is by far the biggest, craziest idea I ever had. PAA has become much more than I ever dreamed. As I bid farewell to my role as PAA’s Executive Director, I can’t help but think that PAA’s growth over the last 15 years has been all about the results of dreaming and convening.

In late 2001, I had the idea that I could harness my passion for designing and implementing unique approaches to teaching in and through the arts by creating a non-profit that would be a platform to realize my ideas. To help make this a reality, I convened a group of artists I had been working with at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and together we dreamed what we could do with hip-hop and other forms of art, culture, and media to bring learning experiences to Cleveland that had never been done before (and it had to be fresh).

What We Didn’t Imagine
What we didn’t anticipate during our initial convening in November 2001, and perhaps, even, didn’t have the capacity to imagine, was that through perseverance and passion, the impact of PAA would be even bigger than any of our dreams.

One significant dimension of our work that we didn’t imagine when the crew and I developed PAA’s vision was that we could build on one of the most important traditions of hip-hop: mentorship and community. As hip-hop culture emerged, a crucial part of the scene was the mentorship that developed between the pioneers of the culture and the aspiring artists who were eager to contribute to the movement. The pioneers became “Grandmasters” and they helped young innovators find their way to mastery in their art form and the aspiring creators in turn, mentored a new generation of artists.

Back in 2006, unintentionally, we continued this tradition by convening and developing a group of students who were more committed to PAA’s annual RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp than other participants. We designed special opportunities and sought additional outlets to take their artistry to the next level. It’s been a thrill to witness the development of student-artists who have now become the Grandmasters of PAA. After over 10 years of mentoring, convening, and creating a community, the result is a group of passionate experts who facilitate our programs and in two cases, now work full-time to make PAA’s magic happen on a daily basis. And I’m proud to share that they now have their eye on the next generation of PAA students to develop.

Why PAA Matters
PAA’s work over the past decade and a half grew from dreaming (“wouldn’t it be cool if we..?”) to a sophisticated strategy supported by a group of staff members, Board members, funders, and donors dedicated to transforming the lives of kids in our community through the arts. From a retired teacher who shared that working with PAA was one of the highlights of her career, to students explaining how PAA helped shape their identity as artists, I’m truly humbled by the impact my dreams and the dreams of others has had on our community.

What I’ve come to understand as the founder, dreamer, and convener, is that Cleveland gave us the perfect platform to be nimble and responsive to our changing environment. It gave us the opportunity to translate crazy ideas into academic rigor. It gave us generous donors that made “If we had this .. we could do this” become more than just a dream. And it gave us a lasting legacy of students, teachers, school principals, artists, and colleagues who have been touched by the arts more than I could have ever imagined.

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