Blog Entry Youth Development, Education

August Member Spotlight: Selvon Waldron, Exec. Director, Life Pieces To Masterpieces

For our August Member Spotlight, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement spoke with Selvon Waldron, Executive Director of D.C.-based organization Life Pieces to Masterpieces. Since being founded in 1996, Life Pieces to Masterpieces has been transforming the lives of the young Black men and boys it serves, using an evidence-based framework to help its students successfully navigate from school to career, while also leveraging the power of art and creative expression to achieve positive self-image and life outcomes. Selvon spoke with us about about the organization's mission, programs, and how they are "creating art and changing lives."

What is your background and how did you come to be involved in this work?

I’ve been at Life Pieces to Masterpieces as Executive Director for two years. I moved to D.C. in 2003 with this idealistic dream to change the world, which is how most of us begin in this business. I was always really inspired by equal rights and justice movements, in particular equity work and the work of Nelson Mandela. In 2012, I finished my MBA and had worked a lot on international programs, specifically international development and environmental programs , but I wanted to really give back to a community that had given me so much. 

When I encountered Life Pieces to Masterpieces after grad school, I remember walking up the four flights of stairs to get to our space in the elementary school, and when I saw the artwork on the wall and smelled the fresh food being cooked, I could hear the young boys in the building on the floor, and a group of young men came up to me, bowed and then they hugged me. And that was really it for me – I knew I was in a space where the potential of Black boys was just at the heart of the organization. I definitely saw immediately how mentoring was transforming their lives, and how art played such an impactful role. That was four-and-a-half, nearly five years ago, and the journey has been inspiring every single day.


What was the inspiration behind the name of the organization?

We take our name from the paintings that our young men – who we call apprentices – create. The paintings are done in a collage-style fashion, where the colors placed on them represent various values. The young men can select values based on eight values we teach in our program, then they cut their pieces out and sew them onto canvases and backgrounds in a quilt-like style that’s very unique. Every painting comes with a story or a poem, and begins with a real-life experience of a young man. All the paintings are done collaboratively as a group; imagine six or seven young men working together, brainstorming and journaling about their experiences, and then sketching those pieces and deciding on colors based on the eight values. That is the overall message and metaphor – that we can all begin life with a blank canvas, but it’s our experiences, challenges, triumphs, successes, trauma that make up masterpieces.

Nationally only about two percent of teachers in public schools are African American males, and in D.C. about four years ago, only about nine to ten percent of our teachers were Black men.

What are the key programs that you offer?

Life Pieces to Masterpieces serves African American boys and young men from a very broad age group of ages three to 25. We remain one of the only organizations in D.C. with a direct focus on African American boys and young men, so we have programming that addresses the needs of various stages of their development.

The earliest program is our after-school program, which is a 20-year old daily program (from about 3:15 p.m. until about 6:30 p.m) for ages three to thirteen. We work with about thirteen different schools in the D.C. area, primarily from Wards Seven and Eight, one of the lowest income communities. Every day we pick the young men up and bring them back to our campus for daily enrichment, which includes meditation, homework support, reading improvement, art and expression -- from visual art to performance-based art -, science, STEM, and other enrichment and exposure opportunities.

From age fourteen, we realized that our young men were developing strong character: they were gentlemen, artists, scholars, athletes. Still, we needed a program for them to get into college and so ten years ago, we launched our Saturday Academy program, which focuses on young men ages fourteen to seventeen. Each Saturday they come to us for a ten-month period and get four-hour workshops on life skills, dressing for success, how to tie a tie, networking, essay skills, as well as Black male identity and the importance of knowing your history as a Black man in America and in the globe. They also get college and career exposure, and come back every year until they finish high school. In the last six years most of our young men – 100 percent actually – have gone off to college.

We also realized in our school systems there was a lack of effectual Black men leading classrooms. Nationally only about two percent of teachers in public schools are African American males, and in D.C. about four years ago, only about nine to ten percent of our teachers were Black men. In 2012, we launched the Education Architect Program, which is an eight to nine month training program where we prepare African American males ages eighteen to twenty-five to be effectual and self-actualized classroom leaders. They go through eight months of classroom leadership, techniques and management; using art in the classroom, professional development, interviewing and resume writing skills. They are also prepared to take the certification examination to become a teacher’s aide in the D.C. public school system.


How are you measuring the impact of your work? 

We measure the success of our young men along seven indicators of success: 

  1. Art Engagement
  2. Self-Efficacy
  3. Family Values/Peer-influence
  4. Significant Other Influence
  5. Academic Achievement
  6. Temporal Orientation
  7. Positive Community Engagement

These indicators are measured through pre and post–testing, classroom observation, and a program report that is published every year. Our evaluations are done through an independent evaluator who helps us to structure the pre- and post-surveys and evaluate our classrooms and classroom observations so that we are aligned with the Youth Qualitative Assessment model. We are working even more to ensure that our programs are as evidence-based as possible, that they’re not only anecdotal but can also prove the effectual nature of our model.

However, we do know that stories are important and have some really impactful testimonies from young men in our program. One young man named Andrew Moore started with us at about age seven (he’s now 24 years old) and has gone through every single program in our model. He is now a teacher’s aide in one of our local public schools, has a family and is a responsible citizen of D.C. We’ve served over 1,500 boys and young men in the past 20 years, and there are tremendous outcomes and stories.

Art gives you courage; if you can put your experiences and your trauma on that canvas, it gives you the courage to go through day-by-day, and builds upon your learning in the classroom.

Why is art and expression so important in helping improve life outcomes and opportunities for Black men and boys? 

For many of our young Black men and boys, expressing ourselves and being emotional is not something that society has always allowed us a space for. I know personally how transformational art is; art has a way of unlocking potential and critical thinking, and is really a safe space for people and specifically Black boys and young men to be able to express themselves, their inner fears, be vulnerable, and also unlocks their readiness for learning. Art also has a way of making us self-actualize and when you reach that level of personal confidence, learning becomes a lot easier. Art gives you courage; if you can put your experiences and your trauma on that canvas, it gives you the courage to go through day-by-day, and builds upon your learning in the classroom.


What are some self-care practices that you use to maintain balance and de-stress?

I’ll be honest, I could do better (laughs). But I’m a very avid bike rider. I like to sit next to water and just reflect; I take my journal when I ride so I can write when I get to the lake. I also utilize a lot of the wellness practices that I learned through a group called Leadership Sanctuary. Things like deep breathing practices, and how to do quick meditation at my desk.


What led you to become part of CBMA, and how can our members support your work?

I became a member because I feel that the Campaign is a really interconnected movement, and I am constantly inspired by Shawn Dove and all of the staff. For years the work of Black Male Achievement and Black male development was very sporadic and dispersed. We knew there were groups doing work in different places but you didn’t actually know about the work they were doing. The Campaign has worked so beautifully to align effectual programs and the research that comes out of the Campaign is really important to this work, as well as the gathering of thought leaders. I have made so many friends just from the gatherings that CBMA has hosted. 

The first way members can support us is by volunteering. We always have pro bono projects that we need support with -- anybody out there who is able to volunteer in our after school program or as a mentor at our Saturday academy on the weekends, we welcome you with open arms. We also welcome support through social media, helping us to push out our messaging. Lastly, really by donating to this mission, cause and movement is uniquely important as well. I always say there are so many ways we can share in this journey, because we’re really all in this together.