Unless you are an artist, it may be hard to understand the value of creative self-expression. But as the kids you will meet in this story will teach you—it can make a life-changing difference.
The story of Life Pieces To Masterpieces is one of empowerment for some of DC's most vulnerable youth living in difficult circumstances, facing steeply stacked odds. This is a story of faithful mentors and role models teaching young boys about personal power and giving them voice. With tempura paints, paper scraps and lots of glue, dreams are formed, shaped, and stitched together—rough and raw, created and celebrated. The most beautiful, meaningful messes in all of DC are made in after-school hours within the walls of Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School.
One need only stop by for an afternoon, like we did, to hear firsthand the impact Life Pieces To Masterpieces is making. It’s important and unique—worth you knowing about and us supporting.
Take Christian, for example. You'll hear more from him later, but here he offers a glimpse into the way that Life Pieces is transforming young boys into strong and confident leaders.
Photographer Whitney Porter captures the joy, hard work and relationships these boys share, and with it, the beautiful masterpieces that result.
We’re sitting at a small round table in front of a wall of windows in a classroom on the fourth floor of the Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School in northeast Washington, DC. The room is bright with the afternoon sun, the sounds of what’s happening in the rooms around us are penetrating the walls.
Tory’elle and Cateo, both eleven, have been part of the Life Pieces To Masterpieces program since they were five and six respectively.
Cateo has three siblings, including an older brother who is also in the program. He’s the more reserved of the two, and maybe a little shy. But there’s a quiet confidence – a thoughtfulness – that emanates as he sits back in his chair.
Tory’elle, on the other hand, is an only child. He’s filled with an almost frenetic energy, sitting bolt-upright in his chair. Chunky glasses fail to hide his excitement about the cookies sitting on the long conference table behind us. He starts the conversation by explaining Life Pieces' mission.
That’s a reality in the communities Life Pieces serves, where only 33% of students graduate from high school—a fraction of the national average.
The poverty, drug abuse, violence and incarceration in this area of the nation’s capitol is cyclical. Tory’elle mentions having family members in jail, referring to an uncle and a cousin. These male figures were suddenly not in the picture, difficult for a young boy being reared by a single mom.
Incarceration itself is a symptom stemming from early failures within the education system. Many of the kids in these communities are markedly behind in math, reading and writing. Some quit school as a result of not being able to keep up, others because education isn’t a family priority. High school dropouts are 63 times more likely to wind up in jail than those who graduate college, but only five percent of this community will ever earn a post secondary degree.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces doesn’t sugar coat the situation many of their apprentices are in, or the odds they face. Again, Tory'elle.
What Tory’elle is referring to is part of Life Pieces’ Human Development System. It is composed of four key elements: Purpose, Premise, Process and a Decision-Making Tool.
- Purpose is the “foundation that makes consistent growth and positive change possible.”
- Tory’elle helped us with Premise, which is “the core beliefs and guiding principles that will help you orient yourself and stay true to that purpose during your every day life.” The “death” he mentioned doesn’t just refer to physical death, but also to spiritual or moral death—the act of living devoid of life.
- Process is how you combine the two into action—how you get things done. LPTM breaks this down into the 4C’s: Connect, Create, Contribute, Celebrate.
- The Decision-Making Tool – Life Pieces' Shield of Faith “can allow you to step back and reflect on how a decision fits into your personal values.”
Let’s talk about process. Life Pieces equips these apprentices with alternative ways to express themselves when facing challenges that others in their community, and even family, have chosen—like violence. Apprentices are taught that expressing themselves is positive, and they have the power to decide how they do it.
Cateo explains why he chooses art.
The Life Pieces artistic process is based on the 4 C’s mentioned above. Apprentices connect with themselves through meditation, inner reflection, or journaling. Ideas are generated through this time based on their day-to-day and life experiences, which are then shared with their peers in small, intimate sessions.
Once a theme is identified, they work together to sketch out their vision, then create it on canvas by blending primary colors to create new ones. The apprentices then cut out shapes and arrange them to be sewn together into masterpieces.
They contribute and celebrate their work through presentations and exhibits. Tory’elle is often called on to help Life Pieces do this and has even had the honor of presenting the apprentice’s work to the mayor. Ironic, because when he started this program, he was described as an extreme introvert. Listen below as Tory’elle describes his self portrait, Giving.
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.Pablo Picasso
Each piece has a story, and these can be very personal for the young men who created them. For Cateo, that journey has been about learning how to recognize positive decisions and using his power in a positive way. This has become a second home for him, as it has for many of the kids Life Pieces serves. It's a safe place where he can be himself.
And this community is helping him discover who that is. After apprentices, staff and volunteers have been involved with the program for a while, they’re often given a “soul name.” This special name reflects a positive attribute of their character, or a consistent behavior they exhibit. It is meant as a tribute, but also a calling—as something they should live up to. On November 18th, 2015, Cateo received his soul name: Emerging Knight. See if you can get a sense of why as you listen to him describe another of his pieces below.
Life Pieces To Masterpieces works in a community where kids have already seen their fair share of hardship at a young age—more than most of us will see in a lifetime.
More than 70 percent live in households headed by single moms. Others with absent or incarcerated parents live with extended family. Some have even watched their parents die, whether from drug abuse or the violence that can play a part in their daily lives.
Christian, 12, has been in the program since 2008. He was being raised by a grandmother until she became sick with cancer. An aunt who came to the area to care for her ailing mother, decided to stay after she passed to keep things stable for her nephew. Christian now calls her “mom.”
He’s the youngest of seven children.
It doesn't necessarily mean having straight A's or a perfect GPA, but it means having a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for the truth.Mignotae KebedeLife Pieces To Masterpieces
Getting sidetracked used to be a problem for Christian, too. When he started the Life Pieces program, he hated homework. Part of the problem stemmed from his performing below grade level in every category, particularly math, reading and writing.
Homework wasn’t just hard, it was impossible.
But that’s changed with Life Pieces. Each day, after centering exercises, apprentices work with teachers, volunteers and organizations from local universities – like American University’s DC Reads – to do homework and participate in other academic enrichment activities. They participate in group and one-on-one individual tutoring in literacy and math. They receive mentoring and later give back, learning critical leadership skills by mentoring younger apprentices themselves.
How far they’ve come is something Life Pieces strives to demonstrate tangibly for these young men. They don’t isolate their celebration of black history to a month, and they call it something else, too: a legacy of competence.
They want to show apprentices that black history is more than the mainstream black leaders—like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois—we’re familiar with. There were countless other unsung heroes, including doctors, surgeons, scientists, musicians, athletes and artists who paved the way. Allowing boys to see themselves in these individuals puts achieving what they did more within reach.
In fact, there were several heroes in the Life Pieces program itself who were key to Christian’s academic achievement. Merely two percent of teachers nationwide are African-American males, and the percentage is only slightly higher in Washington, DC, but these apprentices have the opportunity to interact with strong, black male role models on a daily basis.
Christian talks about how two of these individuals helped him get to where he is today.
"The goal isn’t perfection," says Life Pieces Development Manager, Mignotae Kebede. "It doesn't necessarily mean having straight A's or a perfect GPA,” she says, “But it means having a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for the truth."
Life Pieces aims to put their apprentices on the right path, to discover and develop their innate abilities. Given where he started, Christian might not have thought one of those talents to be writing – but Kebede tells a story that reveals differently.
Recently, he wrote an essay on freedom in the United States. He brought it into the office and asked the staff to proofread it for him.
"Once he walked out, one of our admin staff who used to be his teacher about four or five years ago got a little emotional,” says Kebede. “She remembered the difficulty he had, and now to evolve to this point where he is writing essays on his own."
Listen below to learn more about what Christian imagines a day at work will be like for him.
James has a personality that’s literally larger than life. His megawatt smile is the kind that makes you giggle when you see it, but for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s infectious.
He’s so excited about today that he stops by (several times) to figure out exactly when it will be his turn to be interviewed. This is no surprise coming from the guy who ran for—and won—class president during the last school year.
James lost his father when he was very young. He’s an only child being raised by his single mom. Here, he describes the impact the Life Pieces To Masterpieces program has had on how he conducts himself.
James is now part of the Legacy group. It’s the last level of the after school program, and the stage where he becomes a mentor himself. He says he’s looking forward to treating the younger apprentices with the same respect he received from his mentors in the program.
Life Pieces Development Manager Mignotae Kebede says that taking on a leadership role is natural for James. He exhibited this strength from the moment he walked through their doors.
“You can see him exemplifying leadership in the classroom and outside Life Pieces,” says Kebede. She explains that the program isn’t solely trying to transform these apprentices, but nurturing what already exists within them.
James describes what leadership looks like for him.
We are not creating an environment that encourages saving people. We're creating an environment where the young boys and men can recognize their innate abilities and the power that comes with it.Mignotae KebedeLife Pieces To Masterpieces
The biggest challenge James needed to work on at Life Pieces involved behavioral issues. Not something you might have guessed given what you’ve heard from him here!
But the challenges faced by many living in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8 can be frustrating. There’s a lot in life that cannot be controlled. The odds are against these young men from the moment they come into the world, and they’re often not equipped to deal with it. Sometimes this culminates in acting out—which was a problem for James when he joined the program.
Life Pieces has taught him something valuable about overcoming this obstacle. Kebede explains that when apprentices are sent to the office for misbehaving, they’re asked a simple question: “What is the one thing you have?”
The answer? Power.
“We define our power as, 'My thoughts, my words and my actions determine my destiny’,” she says. “Life Pieces isn't going to make your decisions for you, but you have your power.”
That’s where the program’s decision-making tool – “The Shield Of Faith” – comes into play. James explains what it looks like and how it’s used.
To explain art, James points around the room at all of the colorful pieces of the apprentice’s creations lining the walls. Each color in these portraits – and on the shield – represents a value.
When you mix the primary colors together, you get brown, or discipline. When you mix the primary colors together with brown, you get leadership. You need to master all of the values on shield to be a leader.
The program is heavily steeped in language that perpetuates the importance of these concepts. It is consistently visible as The Shield Of Faith, which is worn by all who participate in the Life Pieces program, including staff, mentors and volunteers. When apprentices find themselves in a tough spot where they must choose how to think, speak or act in a situation, this tool encourages them to take a step back. The hope is that they will carefully proceed in a way that reflects the core values it represents, both now and in the future.
As for James, this young man will soon graduate to Life Pieces’ Saturday Academy. There he’ll begin to focus on college and work preparedness. Listen below as he shares what he’d like to study in college and fills us in on how he’s doing in school now.
The new year is a time for reflection and dreaming, for thinking back and looking forward, for evaluating and resolving.
This story gives a glimpse into both the past and the future. We hear about the struggle of young kids who are fighting against serious odds—their struggle is, indeed, real. But for these kids, the 'struggle' is no flippant reference to the passing inconveniences of life. In fact, as Tory'elle puts it, losing sight of his purpose and premise can mean death.
It is hard to fully capture the scope of what Life Pieces to Masterpieces is doing. Its mission is a powerful one—helping young boys discover and activate their innate creative abilities to turn challenges into possibilities. But even this mantra fails to adequately represent the work of changing lives.
The narrative for this issue quickly became about the kids—Tory'elle, Cateo, Christian and James—not because the program itself isn't impressive, but because the most powerful and compelling voices for its success are its own artists. If you missed the audio clips, I encourage you to go back and listen now. They are, first of all, adorable, and second of all, dynamic. There is no better way to understand the work and mission of Life Pieces than through the lens of its apprentices.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces produces incredible masterpieces, but its most beautiful masterpieces are not paintings, poetry or sketches—they are the lives of children who see hope for the future, who now see challenges as possibilities, who are stepping up as leaders to choose love and compassion for others and who are developing their unique creative abilities to create and pursue new possibilities.
My hope is that this story provokes both reflection and inspiration and that as we understand the depth of the problem, we also resolve to become part of the solution—to support the work of Life Pieces, creating art and changing lives, one young artist at a time.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly