By: Annie Guo, Asian Avenue magazine

Stella Yu has been serving the Denver youth for more than a decade as the Founder and Executive Director of Arts Street, a non-profit that promotes creativity and art for underserved youth.

1) What is your background?
I left Hong Kong in 1964 after high school, alone on a big ship and packed to last four years, to attend the University of Hawaii as a freshman.  After earning a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts and a certificate to teach art in K-12, I settled in Denver and have been here since 1969. Although I have earned other degrees since then, those undergrad years gave me a solid education on community, justice and democracy.

2) What inspires your interest in working with youth?
After teaching art in Jefferson County schools for 11 years, I ventured into Graphic Design and Printing business mentored by a business partner in the early years. Within the next 14 years, the business grew into three companies, offering complete services in business communication graphics and printing, including bilingual translation and typesetting in English and Chinese. During that time, young people from the nearby colleges would approach me for employment. I noticed that they often lack the hands-on knowledge to enter the workplace. Some years later, a tragic fire forced me to rethink my future career. Partnered with an offer by the then Mayor Wellington E. Webb, I joined the City of Denver and started a job-training program for creative youth.

3) How did Arts Street begin and what is your role?
In 1997, as Associate Director at the Mayor’s Office of Art, Culture and Film in Denver, my job was to enhance the state of arts education for the City. I soon realized that the small educational grants programs I was managing in the first year did not have the impact I wanted to see. Subsequently, I founded Arts Street and by the summer of 1999, I was able to raise enough funds to launch our first job-training program that employed 71 youth for eight weeks to work in teams. They produced artwork for clients that involved the performing arts, visual arts and digital media. I have been the executive director of Arts Street since then.

4) What is Arts Street? What services and programs does the organization provide?
Arts Street has been addressing “the Creativity Crisis” for more than a dozen years. The program was founded on the basis that the 21st century needs a creative workforce. Arts Street cultivates under-served youth into a creative and culturally competent workforce using the power of the arts. All Arts Street programs are designed to encourage students to think critically about the world around them and to find the best possible medium to express themselves. Our services are delivered in layers of complexity, at our location and at schools/community locations. There are one-time “exploration workshops” to connect and spark the interest of young people, such as Mural Dueling, Felted Pottery and Line Dance in Rap.  The “Art Institute sequential programs” such as Junk Art on Steroid, Extreme Origami, and Visual Informatics deliver multi-faceted curriculum that combine the arts and the sciences. The next level, “TeamJobs”, engages young people in real world experience of producing work for clients, on-time and on-budget, while earning a pay check as they learn.

5) What do you love most about what you do?
There is no greater joy than when I witness a young person experiences success because of our program.  Comments from our participants such as “I can fly if I want to”; or “Arts Street helped mold me into the artist that I am now”; or through our training and support, a young person was hired in a GIS firm full-time, and declared that “I have no where to go but up”.  Another benefit is that I get to work creativity as late and as long as I want.

6) Why is art important?
Art is a basic human communication language, just like words and numbers. It is the best medium for the development of expressive, interpretative, and evaluative skills. Arts businesses and careers in the arts are also important economic engines in the society.

7) What goals do you have for the future?
For 15 years, I have been working to move Arts Street into organizational maturity. A major step is to change the program delivery to include on-site services. Our graduates also ask for continued networking and mentoring. With the help of the City of Denver, we are now establishing a permanent location to create a community for youth. The arts-street Accelerator is at 1079 Osage, Denver (DHA’s South Lincoln Homes); conveniently located next to the light rail station so that we can develop greater stability.

“Non-profit business is a hard business, and the arts focus makes it twice as difficult to survive.  I have been guided by the words of Bill Strickland, who spoke to the 15 national awardees at our prestigious 2004 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award at the White House, that we are ‘custodians of the human spirit’, and that we cannot quit just because the going is tough.” – Stella Yu

Contact Stella Yu
303-825-1334 | 1079 Osage St., Denver, CO 80204

stella.yu@arts-street.org | www.arts-street.org