Academy of Hope by Sean Cardinalli

Paying a visit to the Roots Summer Leadership Academy and seeing children fully engaged in a variety of artistic endeavors does the heart and soul good. In July and August, the academy’s student-apprentices practice intensive programs in spoken word, dance, music, visual arts, and even financial literacy on the First Unitarian Church’s considerable campus. The academy culminated in a full performance on Friday, July 29th under the theme “I’m Good.”

The academy was co-founded by Cathryn McGill and Dr. Stephanie McIvers in 2012 with the guiding principle of helping “kids understand how they could celebrate their culture and grow into themselves as people.” It is open to students ages 8 to 16, and this year, Ms. McGill says with a smile, they have a lot of “littles,” younger kids and first-time attendees. There are about 40 student-apprentices in all.

The academy is far from typical and isn’t a summer “camp” per se, according to instructor David Cooper. This “isn’t a place where parents bring their kids to escape from their environment, but where they get to see them grow and change.” It’s clearly an impactful learning experience for everyone involved, children, teens, and adults; and the energy is catching.

Roots Summer Leadership Academy

Roots Summer Leadership Academy Participants


The academy is not only interdisciplinary but integrated; every child participates in every discipline, working from a model of “empathetic education,” according to Ms. McGill. The kids move with purpose from class to class; they’ll run through choreography with Dawn Axam; then they’ll move across campus to finesse musical articulation and projection with Stevie Springer; and then head back to the social hall for visual art with Ben Hazard and Tara Warrior.

Ms. McGill and her staff are all attuned to that intensity. In addition to the participants, about a dozen teens and young adults are on hand as coordinators and facilitators. It’s pleasing to see how coordinated, responsive, and respectful the academy’s staffers are; they’re a finely-tuned chorus all their own, working to keep the schedule apace.

Talking with various student-apprentices reveals they eagerly take on the two-week curriculum with aplomb. 13-year-old Chloe from Tony Hillerman Middle School has performed “around town” since she was tiny. Even with prior experience and two years at the academy, she declares, “It’s always challenging, but in a fun way.”

Several brand-new littles, like 9-year-old Ashad and 8-year-old Maliyah, jumped right into the program, overcame initial jitters, and quickly made friends. They both foresee bright futures in the arts; Ashad loves acting and Maliyah wants to be a choreographer.

DeShaun, a confident 16-year-old Sandia High student, has acted and danced for years and is very cognizant of being a role model for the littles.

There’s a clear, energetic reciprocity for all involved, whether instructor, facilitator, or student. Mr. Cooper, a former educator, appreciates the academy for allowing him to fuse his educational and social justice passions. The school system, he maintains, isn’t in the practice of self-advocacy on this level.

Ms. Warrior was emphatic about art’s importance in the children’s lives. “This is a camp that we use to help build self-esteem and confidence. I can’t imagine that they shouldn’t be [proud] because we’ve made some beautiful work.” Nearly all the students plan to return next summer, whether they come from Albuquerque, nearby Rio Rancho, or even Moriarty and Gallup.

The academy’s art components coalesce into a truly fulfilling final performance where the children engage with their audience of family and friends. It’s a holistic educational experience because, Ms. McGill proudly states, “we are teaching [the children] that everybody winning is a goal, and so we’re not in competition with each other; we help each other succeed.”

The Roots Summer Leadership Academy students were total rock stars at the 2016 Closing Ceremony.

Posted by New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee on Friday, August 5, 2016

Weekly EQ with Sean Cardinalli