UIX: Kim Dabbs keeps innovative education at forefront of WMCAT

"WMCAT has this amazing opportunity to find new approaches to education, blending the two models of traditional education and what we could consider social entrepreneurship," says Kim Dabbs, executive director of WMCAT. Kelly LeCoy checks in to see what's new at WMCAT in this week's Urban Innovation Exchange.
Walk into 98 East Fulton, the space that West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) calls home, and you find big windows, versatile furniture and lively activity. Some students are in classrooms with their teachers, and others are in groups working intently on projects. Amidst the hustle and bustle is a hard at work Kim Dabbs.
“The location is absolutely important. At the urban core and at the center of the city, part of a vibrant downtown. We are also not too far into any one high school district area. It provides a nice neutral meeting ground,” says Dabbs, who moved back to Grand Rapids to join WMCAT as the executive director in 2012.
WMCAT first opened its doors in 2005, as one of the first sites to replicate a successful model in Pittsburg, Manchester Bidwell. Since then, it has grown into a successful model in its own right, with the core programs centered in Teen Arts and Adult Career Training.
The Teen Arts Program is built around the pedagogy of design thinking. Dabbs brought the concept back to WMCAT after she had the opportunity to spend time at the d.school at Stanford. The arts program is comprised of 12 cohorts of 12 students each, 144 students total at the beginning of each school year. Including daytime residencies, the center serves between 200 to 250 students in all.
“At the beginning of the year, we asked them, ‘What do you want to see different in the world?’ and we paired them with different organizations that could support or inform how that issue is embedded in our community. The students came up with a solution through their arts and technology lens. What happened was just inspirational,” Dabbs says.
This year, the organizations included Downtown Grand Rapids Inc, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Gilda’s Club - Laughfest, Humane Society of West Michigan, Dwelling Place (Avenue for the Arts), Blanford Nature Center, WMEAC, and Family Promise of Grand Rapids.
Heading into the summer, WMCAT students will be teaming up with Elemental, a news source exploring the positive. The students will work with the Elemental team on reporting and design, all built around the pedagogy of design thinking.
“We were able to change from studio based arts education to design thinking for arts and technology. That’s how the student engagement changed, and that’s how we were able to really dive in to some pressing issues that meant a lot to students,” Dabbs says.
Dabbs hopes they will be able to teach others how to do the same.
“WMCAT has this amazing opportunity to find new approaches to education, blending the two models of traditional education and what we could consider social entrepreneurship. We’ve been going around the country and talking to people about what we are doing here. How the mix of space, technology and pedagogy has really impacted and transformed education. Students view their educational experience and how they can live within their communities and affect change within their communities. That is really exciting,” Dabbs says.
According to Dabbs, Grand Rapids is a key factor to the success of the programs, particularly as they try to leverage and platform arts and technology education, civic engagement and finding student voices.
“All of these things are really amazing and possible in a place like WMCAT and in a city like Grand Rapids. The organization was founded through so many community partnerships. A community like Grand Rapids is incredibly supportive of new ideas and the ability to change quickly. It’s something that has been unparalleled to anything I’ve seen in all of my experience throughout the country as far as communities coming around, supporting entrepreneurship in any sector. It gives Grand Rapids a leg up, that is for sure,” Dabbs says.
In addition to a flourishing teen program, WMCAT’s Adult Career Training (http://www.wmcat.org/adult-programs/ ) also offers education to under and unemployed men and women. Focused on addressing unemployment in the city through an employer and market driven approach, current programs include Medical Billing, Medical Coding & Healthcare Services, and Pharmacy Technician. Medical technologies is a field that is going strong, pays a living way and has heath benefits, things necessary for economic security.
“Everything at WMCAT inspires me. Mostly when our adults start the WMCAT journey, they are very nervous. By the time the program ends, you see how WMCAT has empowered them,” said Yvonne May, student services manager at WMCAT.
Empowerment and voice seems to be a resounding theme in these halls.
“Our students find a voice and they are able to leverage a lot of social and civic engagement. In the end they are going to have a tool, how to think and create. That will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Dabbs says.
As students graduate from WMCAT and find their place locally and globally, they carry with them a new approach to problem solving, interaction, and using their voice.
“It was a place where I could relieve stress and meet people from other schools. The teachers were really great; it’s nice to have support from them now that I am in college,” says Jose Roblero, a 2012 graduate, now pursuing a degree in movement science at Grand Valley State University. “I always go back every semester. I’m not leaving it behind. It taught me to express myself, to keep trying, and to go with my instincts.”
When students were asked what they learned and how they would describe their experience, an overwhelming commitment to the place and people and a deep appreciation for the instructors, staff and experiences shone through.
“The instructors here, they are good examples of people in their field. They teach us how to live, they are really good role models,” says Megan Crouch, a graduating senior, headed to Kendall in the fall to study graphic design.
“I want to help as much as I can with whatever that I can to make it better,” says Elisa Mena, a sophomore at Union High. She just finished her first year with WMCAT, and participated on the A Team, WMCAT’s teen leadership council.
Gabriel Hall is a fellow A Team member, and has been a student at WMCAT for three years. He also participates in the Believe to Become program (http://www.wmcat.org/programs/believe-to-become-idea-lab/ ) and is also enrolled at the Academy for Design and Construction.
“We had a couple community partnerships. We gave Urban Forest Project a great logo. We also did a project with Blanford Nature Center, getting the idea out that there are endangered native species. I enjoy making new connections and helping out my community,” says Hall.
“Acceptance and fun,” “creative opportunities,” “friends and initiative," and “new experiences” are how these four choose to describe WMCAT.
“Every day it is something different that happens in the class, so all of it is exciting!” Mena says.
Dabbs is working towards something exciting in her own right, completing a Decade Dash, her goal to experience 40 adventures before 40. The list includes Macchu Pichu, a marathon, Mardi Gras and a Cubs Game.
“I think a global perspective is really important for our students to gain. It’s not just about Grand Rapids, it’s not just about Michigan or the United States. Their voice and approach to systems and community change can be seen and felt throughout the world. We’re hoping next year to give them that local perspective of what you can change in Grand Rapids, but also pair them with a community partner globally to see what they can change in the world. That will be exciting,” Dabbs says. “I grew up here. The city I came back to is a very different city. I see so many people coming together around social change. That kind of collaborative spirit is why I came back and why I’ll stay.”

Kelly LeCoy is the founder of Uptown Kitchen  and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids.     

Photos by Steph Harding.
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