GlassRoots teaches Newark kids more than just art

From our print edition.

By Meg Fry
Newark | Dec 12, 2017 at 11:08 am
From our print edition
GlassRoots
Barbara Heisler, GlassRoots’ CEO and executive director.

GlassRoots is one of the only youth-accessible hot shops in the tri-state area.

But Barbara Heisler said the mission of the Newark nonprofit is not simply to create glass artists.

“We use the vehicle of glass to do all of the wonderful things we do, including professional and personal development, (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education, and college and career readiness,” Heisler, GlassRoots’ CEO and executive director, said.

According to Heisler, years of research has shown that arts education is closely linked to almost everything that a community demands from its schools, including academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

“GlassRoots’ answer to this need is to bring arts and creative programming to low-income communities, engaging disengaged and underserved youth and young adults while providing opportunity for economic and artistic growth,” Heisler added. “GlassRoots therefore ignites and builds the creative and economic vitality of greater Newark through the transformative power of the glass art experience.”

Since its founding in 2001, GlassRoots has engaged more than 17,000 greater Newark-area youth with its services, including its core Business and Entrepreneurship program, student field trips and “art-for-art’s sake” classes for the public.

“Research suggests, and our programs confirm, that a continuing net of support for disadvantaged students is likely to significantly improve academic outcomes and reduce the wide gaps in achievement that exist,” Heisler said. “Glass is merely the vehicle.

“For example, when you walk into our studio for the first time, you might walk into our flame shop, where the torch is 2,200 degrees and very loud. You learn how to take healthy risks, while also learning to focus and listen. Your concentration gets better. You must see a task through to the end.

“Then, in the flat shop, where you might be working on a mosaic or kiln-formed piece, you’re looking at design, color theory and geometry while collaborating and communicating. In our glass blowing studio, or the hot shop, you learn you can’t blow glass by yourself and must learn to communicate with a team in a very unique and different way.

“There’s lots that you learn that is directly applicable to life and work that has nothing at all to do with glass.”

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Heisler was initially hired as a leadership consultant for GlassRoots a few years ago.

“The board had just parted ways with their prior executive director and asked if I would be interested in conducting some interim leadership,” Heisler said. “I wasn’t interested in being an executive director anymore, yet here I am, loving it, four years later.”

Soon after Heisler signed up for the job, she said she noticed something.

“I’d go down to the artists’ studios at the end of the day and there were always kids hanging out in the office,” she said. “I asked, who were these kids and why were they here? Turns out they were young people who had graduated from high school, which means they had since aged out of our programs, who hadn’t really launched.

“When they graduated from high school, they also lost their coaches and their teachers — some of them even lost their foster homes. Their aspirational jobs were working (in restaurants) — they didn’t have any concept of other possibilities for their lives. … These kids weren’t at the premier schools in Newark — some of them were graduating from alternative high schools or with learning disabilities.

“So, I sat down with the staff and said, there is clearly a group that is not being served. This is the group in which aimless young men often find themselves in trouble with gangs. This is the group that becomes chronically unemployed in meaningless jobs and eventually end up on welfare. We, as an organization, need to do something more for this group in particular.”

GlassRoots then expanded its flameworking, kiln forming and glass blowing programs to include young adults from 10 years old to 28 years old to increase overall academic and interpersonal success in the community.

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The organization’s core programs, including the FLAME (Focus, Leadership, Art, Mentoring and Entrepreneurship) Network, the Business and Entrepreneurship program, and its Summer Youth Leadership Corps, are primarily geared toward preparing high schoolers for any type of career, as well as for leadership and mentorship opportunities.

GlassRoots’ college and career readiness programs focus on putting young adults under 30 on track for careers in scientific glass and/or business ownership.

The Varis Scientific Glass Apprenticeship, for example, is a 12-week, employer-driven program for those with a high school diploma in a state that has the largest number of scientific glass firms in the world.

“We train young adults to make highly specialized glass that is used in pharmaceutical and chemistry labs,” Heisler said. “Making and repairing that glass is very expensive, so we’re training students on how to do that, so they can leave us and walk into jobs making $12 to $35 an hour.”

The Bead Shop program is for those budding entrepreneurs who wish to earn additional income via the creation and sale of flameworked beaded jewelry.

“There is a reason microfinance options usually focus on loans for women,” Heisler said. “Women, especially, are the economic drivers in their home. So, we created this craft entrepreneurship program to teach young women how to make and create glass beaded jewelry while learning business skills they can then apply to any other entrepreneurial business.”

Finally, the GlassRoots-Penland Fellowship, in conjunction with the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, is a 13-week program for college-bound students looking to earn some transferrable college credit.

“We accept six students a year into this full-semester long program,” Heisler said. “Students here learn the skills that they would be expected to have when they go off to college — accountability, the ability to meet new people, how to talk to people who don’t look like you, what it looks like to leave Newark, and then, they actually travel to Penland, North Carolina, to spend eight weeks in a studio intensive there before coming back to Newark to have a show and earn nine college credits.”

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GlassRoots also offers public art classes, one- and two-week summer camps for kids ages 10 and up, and corporate team-building opportunities.

“You take a group of professionals out of the workplace and put them into a glass studio where they have to collaborate to make a piece of art to bring back to their company,” Heisler said. “You get to explore leadership, communication, collaboration — all of the skills we teach to our kids apply to adults as well.”

Companies such as Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Panasonic, Audible and Prudential already have visited GlassRoots for such purposes.

“We’ve also seen young people from local public and charter schools, the Newark Housing Authority, Girl Scout troops and more,” Heisler said.

GlassRoots, which employs six full-time and five part-time on-site staff members, depends on donations from generous individuals, private and family foundations, and corporate and government grants, as well as earned income from hot shop rentals to recreational and professional artists, public classes and workshops, and product sales.

“The public can take a single class for $50, while our Varis Scientific Glass Apprenticeship costs upwards of $4,500,” Heisler said. “Of course, our students don’t pay that. We fundraise to underwrite those.”

GlassRoots served 100 students in 2001; last year, the organization served nearly 4,000.

“I am proud to say that 100 percent of high school students who have participated in our core programs have been eligible to graduate from high school over the last four years,” Heisler said. “Of those students who participated in our GlassRoots-Penland Fellowship, 90 percent have enrolled in college, and 60 percent of the women in our Bead Shop program already have created businesses.

“It’s not always easy to measure an organization’s impact over a long period of time, especially when it is involved in community development work or running a foundation. … But, here at GlassRoots, we know our impact immediately.

“People are changed from the moment they engage with us. Even if you are coming to experience art for art’s sake, you will be changed by the experience of having been in this studio.”

Community and business partnerships

Barbara Heisler, CEO and executive director of GlassRoots in Newark, said it often isn’t enough for nonprofits to simply seek financial support from for-profit partners.

“The reality is that we need to be more creative and fully understand their business model in order to say let’s partner,” she said. “We need to ask, ‘What do you need from this relationship? How can we help you?’”

For Steve Prato and Ann Prato, owners of Joe Tea and Chips in Upper Montclair, the answer was to simply provide opportunities in which to engage with GlassRoots’ students.

“It’s delightful to have successful business owners want to mentor our young people,” Heisler said. “Steve has been a judge for our Business and Entrepreneurship competition and provided our students with the opportunity to visit his warehouse to learn the backbones of his business, particularly when it came to the delivery of a product.”

But what if one lacks that sort of time investment?

Heisler said another way businesses can support GlassRoots is to purchase their honorary awards from the organization.

Diversity snapshot

GlassRoots’ educational programs are especially geared toward youth and young adults in high-risk situations, but also include home-schooled students and disabled adults, Barbara Heisler, CEO and executive director, said.

“Our youth constituency is more than 50 percent African-American, 25 percent Caucasian and 20 percent Latino,” Heisler added. “About 46 percent are from Newark and 72 percent are from Essex County. The majority are from low-income homes, and more than half of our students are female.”

Handmade holiday gifts

If you happen to have purchased glass coasters at the Whole Foods in Newark, you may have unknowingly supported GlassRoots and its mission.

Conversation Starter

Reach Barbara Heisler at: bheisler@glassroots.org or 973-353-9555.

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3