After school in a Baltimore art space, a dozen kids lean over canvases, their hands busy. One draws the word rookie in graffiti script, the o's doubling as eyes on a cartoon face. Another puts the finishing touches on a pair of tattooed, praying hands.
These students, many of whom have spent time in juvenile detention or jail, are exploring their talents and earning extra money through Baltimore Youth Arts (BYA), a nonprofit founded by 32-year-old artist-educator Gianna Rodriguez.
At BYA's Community Studio, Gianna and other instructors offer classes on fine arts, creative writing, DJing and life and career skills, such as registering for an ID and drafting a résumé. The kids, who act as apprentices, are paid $10 for every hour they attend class or work in the studio. During the summer they sell paintings and screen-printed clothing in local galleries and on BYA's website. They keep 70% to 90% of their profits, and the rest goes toward supplies.
"Kids sometimes resort to illegal activities when they need money," says Gianna. "We want to create opportunities so they can step back from that."
Gianna grew up as an artist and dancer, but also had brushes with a tougher crowd. "People close to me went to prison and some struggled with substance abuse," she says. "But my mother taught me to see the best in others."
For more than six years, Gianna taught art to at-risk and incarcerated young people in her hometown of Providence, RI. Then, after earning her master's degree in arts education in 2015, she moved to Baltimore and established BYA. Today, the organization reaches about forty 7- to 22-year-olds per week in detention and recreation centers, in addition to the studio. All told, BYA has worked with more than 250 kids in the past two years. Private foundations help pay for supplies and instructors, and Gianna earns a full-time salary through a fellowship.
Many of Gianna's students tell her that before joining the organization they'd never had an interest in art, been exposed to painting or drawing, or had help with life skills.
"BYA is committed to providing access and opportunities for artistic expression to youth who might not otherwise have them," says Jonathan Jacobs, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who piloted the job readiness program at the studio.
Gianna says some of the young people she has worked with plan to enter creative fields such as graphic design and music. The others are gaining confidence and acquiring tools they can transfer to any career path.
No matter her students' long-term goals, Gianna hopes to help all of them realize their potential. "Everyone has something great to bring to the table," Gianna says. "And it's amazing to witness young people discover their talents."
You Can Help: Find out about ways to support Gianna's mission to lift kids up through the arts by going to .