Nestled between 2nd and 3rd Avenue in Woonsocket stands a nonprofit art school housing students from around Rhode Island scrambling to finish their projects for an upcoming block party. Throughout the building, students are working on projects including graphic design, screen printing, woodworking and murals as a means of expressing their ideas and interests and giving themselves a stronger voice in the community.
Founded in 2002, Riverzedge Arts has, for the past 20 years, been dedicated to providing a creative outlet for youth from Woonsocket, Lincoln and other local communities while helping them build a skill set they can use in their future careers.
Though Riverzedge Arts is, at its core, an organization focused on bringing out the creative abilities of its students, they also offer academic support for the attending you such as connecting them with tutors. The organization also used to host an Expanded Learning Opportunities program where they worked directly with schools to design and administer alternative academic credits to students however, the program was recently let go.
I went on a tour of Riverzedge with Communications and Development Assistant Geo Darrow, who showed me around the school, provided a glimpse into the daily life at the organization and gave more insight into what Riverzedge does for the students who go there.
“So, what we do is we provide career training for local youth, particularly from underserved communities” explained Darrow. “We pay them to participate in the program, so they do get an hourly wage and then they’re in one of our four studios where they design and create different kinds of pieces and different kinds of projects.”
Executive Director Kristen Williams Williams explained that, while Riverzedge does not push for a specific agenda to be promoted in students’ art, they do support the messages that students choose to express.
“We want youth to feel welcome here,” said Williams. “We want to be able to say whatever our youth is saying.”
I also spoke with Kim Keiter who runs the print studio at Riverzedge about the kind of work they do there whether it be commissioned pieces or original designs.
“So, the way it works down here is somebody prints, either the whole shift or half a shift…and we check them for quality. Pretty much, from beginning to end, somebody is in charge of making the invoices correct…making sure everything looks good” explained Keiter. “For our own merch, it’s all hivemind stuff, really, what do we want to work on? What do we want to represent? What do we want to do? Then, we’ll come up with designs and polish them up”
In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Riverzedge switched to virtual sessions and also set up a program where the students could come in and take any food or hygiene products to help them get by. Originally envisioned as a short-term program, it soon became a permanent fixture of the school.
“In response to the pandemic and all of the supply chain disruptions…we offered at the time what we thought was an emergency program to provide relief for the kids,” explained Darrow. “But we quickly realized that this is not a short-term problem…so now it’s a permanent part of our program and the kids can take anything they need for themselves or their families.”
Just outside is a public community garden that, as Darrow explained “…used to be run by a studio we used to operate called the Green Design Lab…they were the ones that grew everything in this garden, and then we gave it away so the community would have access to fresh local produce.”
Though Riverzedge eventually closed the Green Design Lab, the garden stayed open for use by the local community.
“We opened the community garden to the public so people can reserve a plot here a no cost,” said Darrow. “Since this is open to the public, they grow [the food] and do whatever they want with it.”
With this year marking 20 years of Riverzedge being open, the school celebrated with a block party. This block party was a youth-led event meant to showcase their work and let the community know what Riverzedge has meant to them.
Looking to the future, Williams hopes that Riverzedge can expand and continue to serve the local community. She explained their strategic planning which includes getting input from various stakeholders about how Riverzedge can continue to support the community.
“Woonsocket is a really impressive community,” said Williams. “The youth here are really involved. They want to change the community.”