We doubt that Michael McDonald had youth nonprofits in mind when he penned “Takin’ It to the Streets” in 1976. But, then again, you never really know. This Sunday, in a grand example of life imitating art, the Doobie Brothers frontman will headline a benefit block party in the heart of the Funk Zone for Youth Interactive, the Santa Barbara–based arts education program on lower Anacapa Street.
Over breakfast at D’Angelos Café earlier this month, we sat down with McDonald, Youth Interactive founder Nathalie Gensac, program manager Emily Griffith, and McDonald’s daughter, Scarlett, who’s handling public relations for this weekend’s event, to discuss the organization’s biggest fundraising endeavor to date, as well as the impact the program is having on Santa Barbara at large.
For the unacquainted, Youth Interactive (YI) is one of a number of budding S.B. organizations attempting to reunite young people with their creative centers. But it’s also a lot more. Rather than simply offering up a creative outlet for low-income kids, YI is functioning as a vocational arts academy of sorts, instilling “practical life skills, financial literacy, and success through entrepreneurship” to the students that come through its doors. In the two years since Youth Interactive’s inception, its students have created six micro-businesses offering everything from video news production to culinary arts to furniture and textile design. Within these entrepreneurial ventures, the students not only hone a craft but also learn business planning, marketing, and entrepreneurship — all while earning money as well as school and/or community service credits.
“By teaching them vocational skills and business skills, they’re getting that balance of getting to do their craft and building the tools to make it into a business,” explained Gensac. “They’re earning real money from these endeavors, and that’s empowering them. When you give a kid the title of CFO, they feel like they can try, like they can get something out of it.”
The approach seems to be working, too. Over the course of our meal, the group offered up success story after success story, like the young woman who can now afford her bus fare because of the money she’s earned as a member of the organization’s biscotti-making team. Or the young man who bounced in and out of Los Prietos Boys Camp before joining the group’s T-shirt-making business. Or Alyiah, the single mom who came to Youth Interactive after dropping out of high school. Since arriving at the center in January, she’s enrolled in La Cuesta Continuation High School, received a student leadership award, and earned a $2,000 scholarship to Santa Barbara City College, where she’ll begin classes in the fall.
“When you get put into the system, it becomes really hard to find another viable path. That becomes your community,” said Griffith. “How do you get a job? How do you get back into school after being out for six months? Once you turn 18 and that turns into more than a juvenile record, your options are instantly curbed in terms of your future.”
Though the Youth Interactive curriculum has only been fully functional for a year, Gensac says somewhere between 60 and 90 volunteers have already filtered through, and the list of helpers is pretty illustrious, too. In addition to McDonald, the group has hosted notable street artists Rafael Vargas-Suarez and Man One, who helped design and oversee two of the group’s multiple mural projects. The result of these collaborations can be seen throughout the Funk Zone, in high-profile places like the Hotel Indigo, Municipal Winemakers, and the AMASS Gallery on Mason Street. More importantly, Griffith points out, about 90 percent of the organization’s first graduating class has gone on to acquire jobs, reenroll in school, or start college.
As for McDonald, who is both headlining and helping spearhead this weekend’s benefit concert, the Youth Interactive message hits especially close to home.
“My sister dropped out of private school, enrolled in public school, and basically worked from then on to help support our family. I was lucky in that I was able to pull in just enough money through music to keep my mother off my back,” McDonald laughed. “Looking back, though, what a stroke of luck. It was such a gift to be able to support myself doing something I loved, and it motivated me to keep going. I see a lot of these kids, and I think they want to get out there and contribute; they just need someone to tell them how. And if they can do it artistically, it’s so much more gratifying and so much more sustainable.”
Come Sunday, McDonald will be one of many artists showing their support for YI. He’ll share the Mason Street stage with Ambrosia, as well as openers Dylan McDonald & The Avians, Yassou Benedict, and One Two Tree, and all ticket sales will directly benefit Youth Interactive’s ongoing endeavors, which include future scholarships and staffing.
“There’s a practicality in this,” McDonald enthused. “And what’s good for these kids is good for the community, for all of us.”
Catch Michael McDonald & Friends at Youth Interactive’s Funk Zone Block Party this Sunday, July 27, from noon-6 p.m. Tickets range from $50-$100. VIP packages start at $250. For more about Youth Interactive or to purchase tickets, visit youthinteractive.us.