Love is What’s Needed: Justine Bevilacqua on Growing the Arts and Social Justice in Providence

Justine Bevilacqua, Director of Video Program, Marketing and Fund Development, Everett

“Unconditional love for people is what’s needed,” says Justine Bevilacqua. She speaks with a calmness that somehow also conveys how strongly she feels about this. “Of course, you have to draw the line sometimes,” she adds, “and there are bad people in the world, but just seeing people as humans, I definitely think the world needs more of that.”

Bevilacqua was 3 years old when her maternal grandmother Dorothy Jungels and several of Dorothy’s children acquired the carriage house that would become a place dedicated to the arts and social justice in Providence, Rhode Island. Doing most of the renovation themselves, they turned the neglected building into a studio and theater and named it Everett, after Everett Weeden, a fellow artist and family friend.

The organization’s full name is Everett: Company, Stage & School – a nod to the breadth of its reach. Everett Company’s artists create evening-long multimedia pieces that tour nationally. Everett Stage presents Friday Night Live, a weekly, family-friendly improv comedy show, and Open Stage, on the first Friday of every month, showcasing local talent for the community. Everett School offers a wide range of classes, including hip-hop, ballet, Polynesian dance, improv, and filmmaking.

Growing up with Everett, as one in a mix of black, brown, and white faces, Bevilacqua learned early that “diversity is good for everybody.” She recalls her young self joyously running around the newly renovated space, playing with props from Science Project (1992), one of the new company’s earliest performance pieces. She took ballet, hip-hop, and film classes at Everett when she was in middle school. One of her first films was The Otherside, a documentary about private versus public education. She was by then a high school student; the disparity between the wealth of the local private school and the nearby struggling public school caught her by surprise. So did the disparity in racial diversity. “We live in a segregated society,” she says, “and that’s the truth of it. Racism is real and it’s scary and I’m afraid.”

Bevilacqua earned a degree in filmmaking and psychology at Emerson. She also performed in Everett’s BRAIN STORM, a piece about the beauty, resilience, and challenge of the human brain, and is working with the company on creating a follow-up to Freedom Project, a moving and insightful examination of the intersection of race and mass incarceration in America. She’s part of Everett’s Café program, a series of conversations between the community and experts; the Cafés are free and generate some of the material the company uses to create new works.

As the member of Everett’s team directing video, marketing, and fund development, Bevilacqua is proud that Everett is “a place that never turns people away.” She sees that as one of the beautiful things about Everett; they always maintain some events that are pay-what-you-can, and kids always come for free.

“Everett provides a place for artists and young people to experience what it is to be an artist and fall in love with art and find their voice.” For a community whose members face challenges – Bevilacqua described some of the current members and their social and psychological issues, including suicidal depression, self harm, and recently being in prison – finding a safe place to express yourself is a life-changer.

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I’ve served on Everett’s board for almost ten years now. I wish there had been an organization like Everett when I was young. In the white working class neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, we had an irrational, unhealthy distrust of the black neighborhoods nearby. Everett would have made a great difference to a lot of people in that neighborhood.

In 2013, Everett sought and received funding from the Rhode Island Foundation for a pilot program they named Barnstormers. Bevilacqua was one of the first to go through the program. For two years, she was mentored and took advantage of training opportunities offered by the Rhode Island Foundation and other organizations, developing skills in community outreach, marketing and development. Now she oversees Barnstormer youth who will become mentors for future groups.

“The program is great because it gives diverse young people an opportunity to work in areas they might not otherwise have a chance to access,” says Bevilacqua.

The Barnstormer youth learn job skills and take on leadership roles. “I do not think you need a college degree to have a leadership role in nonprofits,” says Bevilacqua. “Offering these young people opportunities could lead them to a path where they end up getting a degree.” She has seen too many youth who start college, drop out, and end up with a lot of debt, and sees Everett’s program as a healthier alternative for training and professional growth.

Barnstormer youth are paid $12 or $13 an hour and work 20 hours a week. Justine has observed “tremendous changes in them, both in their professional skills, and, just even simple things. Knowing that you come in with a smile, and you leave your baggage behind, and you go into work mode, and make eye contact. All these skills are important and aren’t always taught in school.” Barnstormer youth also acquire experience teaching in after-school programs and at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

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“Everything starts with improv: dance, theater, a touring piece,” Bevilacqua says when I ask about the core of Everett’s approach. “Improvisation is one of the key components of what we do. Also, storytelling and self-discovery – to go back and take a look at what’s happened to their lives and maybe put it into a show or a dance.”

Everett’s process, built around self-expression as a way to develop emotional stability, has led to a five-year partnership with CBITS (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools) and Brown University to work with middle school students at three Providence schools. “CBITS has been a nationwide program for years,” Bevilacqua explains, “but Everett is bringing arts into it in a way it hasn’t been done before.”

Bevilacqua sees the Barnstormer youth gaining critical experience in the process of helping youth, including participating in the feedback loop with teachers, social workers, and Brown University professionals in order to enhance treatment.  “I truly believe that not just kids who are experiencing PTSD need this. It should be a thing in all schools. You have a class about learning to deal with your emotions; learning how to cope with difficult situations.”

Robust funding for the middle school trauma program enables Everett to engage in this work. Hope 360, a smaller school within Hope High School in Providence, budgets for a 17-week Everett theater course offered as an elective. Some dozen Everett students attend Hope 360, and Bevilacqua sees the course is a great way to deepen the relationships needed for their development. She’d like to see the class offered full time, and plans to seek additional funding from different sources.

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As our conversation veers into funding, Bevilacqua draws a breath. “We’ve survived for thirty years, so we haven’t been awful at fundraising.” She gives a little laugh. “But it’s definitely been a struggle.”

Last year, Everett undertook its first capital campaign. “It was a bit scary,” she recalls. “I had never done any serious fundraising. And the other principals at Everett had little experience and frankly, didn’t like it.”  The campaign kicked off with a State Cultural Facilities matching grant for $50K from Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

“We doubled the goal to $100K,” says Bevilacqua. After further discussion, Everett increased the goal again, to $150K. The hope was for a heating and cooling system to extend programming into the summer, and for additional classroom space.

Early on, a board member leading the campaign stepped down. Bevilacqua recalls that as a time of “sadness, fear and doubt.” But she also felt motivated. “I’m good at talking to people. And I’m not afraid to ask people for money.”

Two local professionals with extensive fundraising experience stepped up to mentor Bevilacqua, and the board participated in training and took on more volunteers to help. The campaign included a grant from the Champlin Foundation, personal asks, a mailing, and a pledge event.

The event involved performers creating and performing stories meant to inspire people to donate. “A lot of folks gave two or three times more than they normally give,” says Bevilacqua. The campaign exceeded its goal by $20,000, and increased community awareness of Everett. “I can genuinely say I’m looking forward to starting up our annual campaign,” Justine admits. She still has the “huge blessing” of her two mentors.

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I ask Bevilacqua how she manages what I know is an extremely demanding schedule, given her work at Everett and her own filmmaking projects, and she says she has the help of “an insanely supportive family and an amazing wife.”

I ask how she imagines what it would be like if Everett didn’t have to worry so much about funding, and she says she’d like to see several full-time Barnstormer positions. “Also, a decent salary for myself,” she adds. She’d spoken earlier about her brother, a scientist who makes more than three times her salary.

As we wrap up our conversation, Justine emphasizes the importance at Everett of the friendships and community. “It’s a beautiful thing. I would not trade that for the world. ” Her thoughts return to Everett’s founder, Dorothy Jungels. “She’s 80 years old and she’s still there every day, always wanting to learn and explore. Each person that comes up the ladder inspires that next young person. My grandmother passed this on to me.”

 

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