When planning activities and gathering spaces to make the most of city culture, it's important to address the needs of all of the diverse groups who make up the social fabric – and too often, it seems like the needs of teens and young adults fall through the cracks. Young people under age 21 are stuck on challenging middle ground: they want an independent space to gather and experience culture on their own terms, but they're closed out of adult venues.
Enter The VERA Project. The all-ages, non-profit center, located in Seattle Center, has built a community where young people enjoy gathering to watch, listen and participate in the creation of music and art. Volunteers – many of them high school and college-age students – book and produce an impressive schedule of concerts year-round featuring artists from around the country. VERA also offers inexpensive, expert-taught classes where students and community members can learn useful skills like apparel design and studio recording to encourage and develop their artistic interests.
Founders James Keblas and Shannon Stewart, both University of Washington graduates, developed the idea for The VERA Project in 1999, when they spent a year studying in the Netherlands. They encountered a music venue called Vera, where a volunteer staff, with full funding from the Dutch government, worked to produce popular music and film events featuring young artists in Europe and the United States. Keblas and Stewart envisioned a similar venue in the U.S., run as a non-profit, and saw the all-ages approach as a way to answer a timely need in Seattle as young artists and producers protested the Teen Dance Ordinance. VERA opened its doors in 2000, and is still continuing to grow. According to Co-Director Shannon Roach, more than 35,000 people came through Vera's doors in 2008 – more than twice the number of participants that the organization saw in 2005.
VERA's popularity has allowed it to partner with other Seattle pop-culture institutions like KEXP and the Capitol Hill Block Party, generating impressive results like Vera's first podcast, a presence at local events, and more. "A lot of skill-sharing happens at Vera, and it's truly all ages … high school and college age and older people too, volunteers who are sharing skills, and a lot more young people who are coming and participating," Roach says.
And, as she points out, because The VERA Project is run as a non-profit arts organization rather than as a business, it is more resilient and more flexible to provide added value in the form of classes and volunteer opportunities, and to offer the chance for high school and college-age members to play a meaningful role in decision-making. According to Roach, VERA receives new inquiries almost every week from communities around the country who are interested in learning how to make a similar project work. The staff at VERA share ideas freely and openly with others who are interested.
Why it's Worldchanging:
Changing economic realities such as the rising prices of fuel and home energy as well as cultural shifts like the growing popularity of walkable neighborhood design and an attraction to smaller, more efficiently designed homes, have caused many Americans to contemplate moving to dense urban environments. But the stigma of cities as dangerous and undesirable places to raise children is still a cultural barrier for many. As an all-ages venue for enjoying, performing and learning about music and other popular arts, The VERA Project fills several important roles for the Seattle community. Teens and young adults can find a place to socialize that's both exciting and safe; they can learn useful skills from sound engineering to silk screen printing; and they can take on responsibility within the project and share in the experience of planning and executing large cultural events for a group of their peers. By providing this multifaceted resource, VERA serves families and youth alike, creating a platform for turning today's young people into tomorrow's impassioned, skilled and experienced champions of urban culture. We look forward to seeing how the teens involved with VERA – and the other projects the organization's work has inspired -- will help shape the cities of the future!
Photo: AIDS Wolf performing at The VERA Project. Credit: flickr/Invisible Hour, Creative Commons license.
This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."