Creating a Culture of Opportunity

New WMCAT Executive Director Kim Dabbs believes mightily in the power of arts and technology to effect positive change in a community – so much so that she moved across the state to head up the organization.
Dabbs, a Grand Rapids native and Kendall College graduate, spent the last decade on the east side of the state. After earning a master’s degree in public administration from UM-Dearborn and working for the Detroit Zoo and Michigan Youth Arts, she found herself drawn back to Grand Rapids to lead West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and their unique approach to community change.
“Grand Rapids provides such an amazing opportunity to collaborate,” says Dabbs, who has been in her post just over two months. “The people here understand the value of collaboration. They can achieve things because change can happen rapidly. The infrastructure is already in place, so we’re able to fulfill our mission in a city this size in a very progressive and innovative way.”
WMCAT’s mission, broadly, is “to provide opportunities for people of all ages to seek, learn, and grow in an environment that will inspire hope and motivate individuals to make positive social change and economic progress in their lives and community.” Part arts organization, part training program, and part economic development organization, Dabbs says her vision for the group’s future is to continue alleviating poverty through programs that work.

“I’ve worked statewide and looked at best practices in arts education,” says Dabbs, “and what I’ve found over and over again is that we’re able to effect so much positive change at the local level. So working for an organization like WMCAT, which addresses large-scale issues through the lever and lens of arts and technology, was really a unique opportunity.”
In an era of budget cuts to many schools, Dabbs is passionate about the power of using arts and technology – often considered “extras” in a school’s operating budget – to make a real difference in the community. Students in WMCAT’s programs are involved in free, dynamic, after-school classes in digital photography, graphic design, printmaking, and other classes that teach collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking skills in an atmosphere of creativity and fun. Classes are taught by trained instructors who are professionals in their field.

“We use the arts in our youth programs to keep kids engaged in high school,” she says, noting that WMCAT partners with GRPS high schools in serving about 200 students (grades 9-12) each year.

“We know it works. We know that arts education is a tool for engagement and changing lives.” The proof? Dabbs cites a 96 percent graduation rate for WMCAT seniors last year (in contrast to a 48 percent graduation rate district-wide). And right now, she says, a group of students is working with the governor’s office, having been chosen to create the ornaments that will grace Michigan’s tree in the Washington, D.C. Christmas tree display this holiday season. A generous donor, upon learning about the honor, arranged to fly the students to Washington, D.C. to learn about civic engagement and see their art on display. It’s just one example of the kinds of public-private partnerships that happen here, Dabbs says.

WMCAT also provides career training for underemployed adults (about 30 per year), partnering with Spectrum Health, St. Mary’s, and other local healthcare employers to provide externships in areas like medical billing and pharmacy. Here, says Dabbs, her emphasis is on creating sustainable career pathways.

“What’s key is working with the people who will employ our graduates to find out where the need is right now. We have the capacity to train hundreds, but we work with human resources departments to place people in long-term employment situations that pay a living wage and offer benefits.” Dabbs is proud that 77 percent of WMCAT’s adult program graduates are placed in jobs within six month of graduation, with salaries earned in excess of five million dollars to date.

“Creating a culture of opportunity transforms a community by making sure all our citizens have a chance,” she says with a confident smile. “These programs change lives, and when they change lives, they change communities one person at a time.”

Going forward, Dabbs says her goal in leading the organization is to increase WMCAT’s impact within the community in a way that is scalable by collaborating and serving as many people in the best way possible. With infectious enthusiasm, she reminds us that “small investments change lives” and points readers to as a tool for increasing awareness and funding for the organization’s mission.

“Twenty dollars for a T-shirt that a student can screen print; a donation that purchases a skateboard deck for one student: I love to see people in a season of giving give this way," she says. "It’s an opportunity to make a real change in your community.”
 Photographs by Adam Bird
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