The biggest heroes and mentors that continue to guide my principles are the youth I have had the utmost privilege of working with over the years. I literally learn something new every day from them and they make me listen differently, see art more acutely, and see the world through a new lens. — Brad Fesmire
ACCOLADES FROM YOUTH
“As a five-year participant and employee of RiverzEdge, I have had the great pleasure of working for and with Brad Fesmire. Everyday, no matter what the situation, through bad or good, Brad demonstrates great and responsible leadership that is unrivaled. His optimistic attitude and positive influence on all the staff and participants bring out the best in everyone. Whether through singing, whistling, or just having a good time, Brad always inspires proficient work. If there is a project that seems impossible to achieve in a short time, Brad is always the first to jump in and get working. [...] RiverzEdge would not be the same without Brad!” — Robert Coveney, Visual Arts Studio Participant, age 17
“Feeling the warm greeting of Bradley Fesmire every Monday to Thursday is what keeps me motivated. He sets goals you would never believe. You may think you can not achieve that goal, but with Brad by your side, you [want to] go above and beyond to impress him. “ — David Gomez, Visual Arts Studio Participant, age 16
“Brad has been a true role model. He has helped me a lot with my painting, and he has been someone to talk to when things aren’t going right. It’s good that he’s there when they don’t go right.” — Kassandra Sylvestre, Visual Arts Studio Participant, age 17
AN INTERVIEW WITH BRAD FESMIRE
What brought you to the afterschool field?
Honestly, it was an accident that landed me in this field. After finishing my MFA in Painting, I had my bags packed and I was about to move to New York. A week before I was leaving, I was forwarded a job posting for a Painting Studio Instructor at a small nonprofit called RiverzEdge Arts Project. A few days later, I was in the studios teaching painting and mentoring twenty youth in Woonsocket. Seven years, many workshops, and a wealth of experiences later, I have had the great fortune to work with hundreds of the greatest youth on the planet, great partners, and fellow colleagues in a field that presents new challenges and excitement, and has enriched my life in ways I never thought possible.
Who are the teachers, mentors, or heroes that shaped your career and guided your practice or principles?
There are too many people to name that have shaped my practice and principles working with youth and directing an afterschool program. Every day is an opportunity to learn from other people with different skill sets and expertise outside of my own. There have been three specific mentors that have guided me through the years. The first was Michelle Novello, the founder of RiverzEdge. She introduced me to the idea of this work and taught me to take the unique challenges of working with youth with humor and as much grace and possible. She also helped me to foster the highest expectations for all youth in and outside of our programs. She helped me to see the young adult in all of them and to have a delicate yet direct approach when working with teens. Another invaluable mentor has been Rebekah Greenwald-Speck, current Executive Director of RiverzEdge. She provides meaningful leadership every day and has helped me to think through every idea, obstacle, and initiative, in deep, informed, and innovative ways. She continues to show me there is no “box” and to always do what is right for our youth, the community, and our partners, no matter the political or financial barriers. Her idealism continues to foster mine. The biggest heroes and mentors that continue to guide my principles are the youth I have had the utmost privilege of working with over the years. I literally learn something new every day from them and they make me listen differently, see art more acutely, and see the world through a new lens. They guide my practice by telling me (indirectly) what they need, and that listening makes a difference, and doing what you say makes all the difference. Thirty seconds of attention and respect means the world to them and that’s never too much to give. They change your life in unexpected ways and keep you coming back for more.
What excites you globally about working in afterschool?
The critical and innovative work we do in Rhode Island translates across communities, cultures, and countries. This was made very clear to me recently when RiverzEdge hosted a group of afterschool stakeholders from Singapore. They were in Rhode Island to see a few afterschool arts programs and spent an afternoon with us talking about afterschool in Singapore, issues of youth engagement, programs they have, ones they want to develop, and outcomes they were looking to achieve. They have a 99% high school graduation rate, but still deal with similar issues of youth disengagement, malaise, and a creative sector vacuum. In Rhode Island, we wish we had that 99% graduation rate, but no matter the variety of factors in the lives of youth, globally, they share the same insecurities, growing pains, and search for their place in this world. During our conversation, nothing was lost in translation because we spoke the same “afterschool language” and, at the end of the day, we all strove to affect the lives of youth in profoundly positive ways. This is truly something global.
What makes Rhode Island a compelling place to work in afterschool?
I am from a state where it takes five hours to get from border to border and communities are geographically large and disconnected. Here, I walk up the street, talk to the Mayor, meet with the Superintendent, and constantly collaborate with other community partners that are around the block and at the other end of the state. These genuine partnerships make Rhode Island unique and a compelling place to create innovations in programming and linkages to highly enriched learning. Partners like NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, The John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, and the City of Woonsocket, among many others, have made developing innovative projects, reform initiatives, and genuine outcomes for youth exciting, enriched, and the highest quality. I feel very fortunate to work in a state where these collaborations take place across the landscape, and I think we can’t take this for granted. It is truly a unique and remarkable setting for afterschool.
What is your ultimate dream for afterschool in Rhode Island and beyond?
I am very interested in breaking down the imaginary barriers between community-based programs, our schools, and the public discourse. I dream to see the day when CBOs, schools, and municipalities across the landscape work in meaningful and collaborative ways to help our students succeed and communities redeveloped into healthy social and cultural epicenters. To accomplish this, we would have access to the appropriate and abundant resources (this is a dream, right?), whether they are financial-, technological-, or expertise-based. I look forward to a time when afterschool is not “after school” and its connotation is one that insinuates, all day, every day learning experiences that are valued in all sectors. This blend of resources and discourse would level the playing field for all youth and we would see all of them that we care so deeply about carve their own path of success and cultural wealth in this world.
ACCOLADES FROM THE FIELD
“I admire Brad’s enthusiasm and commitment to hands-on learning. He understands how to work with youth to help them see how much they matter, and he is dedicated to expanding youth opportunities throughout the state. He is a model for all of us.” — Elizabeth Ochs, Expanded Learning Opportunities Coordinator, Central Falls High School
“It is both an honor and a pleasure to work with Brad. I witness every day the mentor and role model he is to hundreds of youth, staff, and colleagues. I receive the benefit of his “can do” attitude and unusual ability to keep all engines running at top speed, week in and week out, as we pursue the next “crazy” thing that can’t be done–that we then do. In any given week, Brad facilitates a graduate level art project among high-school-age youth that helps them take their talent to the next level; he crafts the vision for our next grant; he attends 3 different leadership meetings to help improve schools and out-of-school-time programs; he communicates with caregivers and social service partners to help find solutions or champion the causes of the 75 teens we serve on site. [Brad is truly] a superhero for teens, Woonsocket, and education reform. Finally, at the end of the day, Brad goes home to his own art studio, his artistic practice, and his budding fame and glory as an artist. On top of it all, Brad is humble and kind. He uses his unusual smarts and talents to find ways to make others shine. He is a natural born leader, but leads first by example and then by communal challenge. I truly feel, working with Brad, that we are in all aspects of running this organization together, and I could not do it without him. I am grateful for his existence as an artist, his commitment to service, and his long-term vision for RiverzEdge. There is not another more deserving than Brad.” — Rebekah Greenwald Speck, RiverzEdge Arts Project