For two years, the Swaliga Foundation has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington (BGCGW) to give students an education that integrates science, technology, engineering, and math curricula with the arts.
This collaboration has become part of the national STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) movement, which aims to help children adapt and function in modern-day America by coupling what have been considered vastly different subjects.
“I show the young learners we work with how the science and math they learn in school relates to music and different things like drawing, because STEAM is just a way to get kids excited about education,” said Lemond “IMAG” Brown, 27, founder of the Swaliga Foundation.
The District’s graduation rate sits at 61 percent, well below the national average of 81 percent, according to data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. People who don’t obtain a high school diploma have a greater chance of being unemployed than those who have a high school diploma or a college degree. Dropouts often struggle to find jobs and dire financial circumstances may influence them to participate in illegal activities that lead to jail time.
Brown said with the support of nonprofit organizations like the Swaliga Foundation, founded in 2012, students in low-income neighborhoods can use their passion for performing and fine arts as an incentive to stay in school.
In 2013, he launched the STEAM the Block initiative — in which he shows children the connection between the arts and technology — at Boys and Girls Clubhouse 14 on Benning Road in Northeast. Since then, Brown and his colleagues have served nearly 500 children a week throughout the metropolitan area. Next spring, the Swaliga Foundation will take 12 students and their mentors to South Africa.
“We show them how the internet can be a tool [that] has to be used the right way,” Brown said. “We show them how to make apps and how a device actually works. [We also] teach them to be creators of technology and not just consumers.”
Brown said he aims to bridge the performing arts gap between the workforce and childhood development through the Swaliga tribe, a group comprised of artists, fashion designers, poets, doctors and journalists.
Members of Swaliga, or “the tribe,” like Chene “The Benu” Byrd teach youth in D.C.’s Ward 1 how to shoot documentaries with cellular phones, play instruments, engage students in art therapy and mural projects and correlate graphic designing with emotional expression.
Byrd, a community connection specialist for K-12 students at Jubilee Housing Community in Northwest, participates in an active “STEAM ecosystem” that partners with neighborhood companies and small businesses to provide children with internships.
“When you think of the tribe, think of a band of brothers and sisters who have come from all different backgrounds. We are a melting pot. We put our passions and expertise into one pot, add some heat and we are cooking,” Byrd said.
Byrd, also youth leader at the Jubilee House’s Teen Renaissance Center in Northwest, noted that children look forward to the STEAM-centered program because it gives them a sense of self-worth and community. While she acknowledged racial adversity, she said it doesn’t make children harder to guide. It just shows how society needs more teachers.
For now, Swaliga will likely expand by inducting more leaders and teachers into its organization and incorporating Brown’s music, which he describes as “anti-pop culture.”
Brown will release his first studio album and short film, “Melanin King Project,” in November as a way to promote a positive shift in popular culture. He said he feels the mainstream music industry uses and takes advantage of black customs and melanin to influence youth into participating in trends and fads that aren’t uplifting to the community.
“In this time where people are shedding more light on how black people are being mistreated the album will speak to that. The album gives insight to why we are so great, and why our melanin is great,” Brown said, who wants to spread his message globally.
Brown said he feels people of color have a harder time being successful but finding one’s passion can alleviate adversity.
Long before receiving a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Brown knew if he wanted to practice music, then he would have to earn good grades. Brown said he can recall, as a child, taking piano lessons, and banging his drumsticks on the tables and walls at family cookouts.
His family, especially his father who is his best friend, gave him sound advice and mental support to pursue his passions, but schoolwork always came first.
“Music has kept me out of a lot of things, because I was more focused on music, and spent my time making music instead of doing things that would get me in trouble,” Brown said.