Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Claudia Stelle. Executive Director, Coyote Central

Claudia Stelle has been a director at Coyote Central since 2001.  We spoke 
about the creative programming Coyote offers kids in Seattle and especially 
the Central Area.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Tell me about the choice to locate in this neighborhood.

We had a real history here, having been working with kids from the schools in this neighborhood for over 20 years. Coyote Central had also partnered with community groups here to do projects in the Central Area at Garfield Community Center, Miller Community Center, Flo Ware Park, Powell Barnett Park. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better neighborhood in the city for us to locate. I've lived just blocks from here for the past decade.

Can you share a bit about what Coyote Central does with kids?

Coyote was founded with the idea of serving all kids so we have always gone into the public schools to offer our program to every child. Marybeth Satterlee, our co-founder, was a teacher in the public schools, so she had relationships with school counselors and teachers. They welcome Coyote into their schools every term to do presentations to their students. We have display boards and we go in and introduce ideas about trying welding or cooking. It just excites kids with the possibilities of what they could try at Coyote. I think we recruit in over thirty schools, yet we get kids from over eighty schools a year.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

The idea has always been to serve all kids. We were not founded to serve any one demographic or address a specific need like serving at-risk kids. Coyote is based on the important idea that all kids come and work together, so kids from every ethnic and economic background are all working in the same class because they want to learn how to weld, or they want to learn how to do animation, or they want to learn how to design a dress and sew it. Whatever the task, they’re there because of their interest in it. In that process, they are meeting and working in teams with kids from all over the city.

We believe that experiencing creative problem solving is so important to every child. Coyote has never really been about art, per se, it’s just that art is a great way to explore creativity and problem solving.  Anybody who’s ever tried to draw a portrait realizes, it’s all about solving problems like, why doesn’t this look like it should? What do you do to make it better? In essence, that thought process is in every one of our courses, and that’s really what Coyote is all about.

So, if I understand correctly Coyote is here to serve the creative mind? It doesn’t matter whether the child is interested in clothing design, or painting, or animation, they’re learning skills and counting on their own creativity to solve problems.

Photo: Madeline Crowley
Yes, that sounds pretty good. Also, there’s no question that working with professional creative people is really key to give them that sense of their own possibilities and their own future and getting together with peers who happen to also think it’s really cool. So, they work with a professional fashion designer who has her own line of Shibori scarves. They work with a professional chef who’s in a restaurant six days a week. So they meet a role model in their field of interest. Also, they are grouped with other kids who also think it might be cool to be a chef, or to be a fashion designer. This must be terribly reassuring to a middle school kid who has these interests and has no idea if anybody else shares them. They come here and discover a whole class full of kids who share that interest here.

To come to a class full of people that you share an interest with who don’t all go to your school makes your social world expand exponentially. That also is amazing.

We did little interviews recently with kids who were both current students and former students. When they were asked by the interviewer about, ‘What mattered most to you about Coyote or what do you remember?’ many of them said it was the people. It wasn’t just the instructors, but the other kids, meeting a whole new group of people. Middle school can be so insular and kind of, well, deadly (laughs). I think Coyote is the ideal alternative to that.    On the weekends, no matter what your week is like at school, you come to Coyote and it’s a safe place.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

It’s this welcoming, colorful, beautiful place where you get to explore a genuine interest. It’s like Glenda the good witch, it doesn’t get better than that.

As importantly, it’s a safe place to take risks. You learn how to make this wild hat that you would never be caught dead in anywhere else. You can just do whatever moves you and try it out while not worrying that people are going to make fun of you or think you’re weird.  The opportunity to take creative risks is big; it is one of our main learning goals.

There’s something really wonderful about meeting other kids that share an interest, you know you are literally no longer that weird kid who likes animation, you’re one of twenty kids who you know, who you like, that share an interest. The space has such an incredibly warm, inviting feeling and…  I can imagine, in the worst case scenario, an at-risk kid who’s not safe at school, they’re not safe at home and they come here and there are bright colors, it’s clean and it feels safe and open. And for them, it’s like, this could be how my life could be… But, let’s return to how this place began.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

So Marybeth Satterlee cofounded Coyote with Greg Ewert, who was a fellow teacher, in 1986. Their concept was to make creative problem-solving available outside class. Greg fairly shortly thereafter moved to Lopez Island. He has since lost a battle with cancer so he is no longer with us, but he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Marybeth then soldiered on. Coyote grew very gradually from, I think, nine kids the first term.

We have a chart of the growth of Coyote, in a brochure that shows this incredibly steady growth. We worked out of Marybeth’s kitchen for years. When I came on in 2001, it had been small but growing for fifteen years. Then we started growing faster. By 2005, we rented office space in Madison Valley. The growth was so organic and so gradual. We never thought, ‘Ok, now we’re going to try to have 40% more kids.’ We just offered programs. And as the demand went up, we offered up more.

It was just driven by the demand. More and more kids and their families were finding out about Coyote and wanting to do cool stuff. So we added more and more courses and then took little leaps like having our own office.  Which led to the big leap of having our own space here. Having our own space has expedited our growth exponentially and now that we have these facilities we can indeed leap to ever more new programs.

Now we’re serving about 1,300 kids a year. So the growth and the quantity of kids served is pretty mind-blowing.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Studio Coyote
 The bulk of our programming is ‘Studio Coyote’ which are 20-hour courses over a really wide range of subjects. It puzzles some people because they wonder, ‘Well, why don’t you specialize in wood-working, or bikes, or fashion design?’  We believe that Middle School is an age of discovery. It’s when you’re seeking to find, ‘Who am I? What do I love to do? How am I going to find work that I love?’

One of our wonderful board members (who’s been at the YMCA for years) says Middle School is the age where it’s developmentally appropriate to dabble. Dabble is her word. It’s really true. So a child comes here and takes four different courses in a summer: Cooking; Welding; Design and Sew, and Breakdancing. It’s not that they don’t love any one of them, it’s that they want to try lots of things.

We support that.

We also have developed some advanced courses for kids who say, ‘Oh, I want to learn animation.’ They would come back and take the same course three, four times because they just loved it. So now, hopefully, we give them a chance to develop an individual skill when they find one that they really love. But our biggest mission is to give them the chance to try different things, to find out what they love.  During that process they build confidence and skills, it makes them feel competent in the real world, something rare in the digital age.

What are the other programs you do?

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Hit the Streets
Since 1992, we have been doing ‘Hit the Streets’ Projects, which are summer public art projects with 24 at-risk kidsIt’s a work program, they get a stipend to learn job skills like reliability and showing initiative, and working in teams. Most of the kids attend Washington Middle School, Madrona K8 and surrounding schools, and live in the CD or South Seattle. Our kids come from here, we’re doing public art here, so when a building here came available, it just seemed like a great place for us to be. We’d been thinking for many years, ‘Gee, we could do so much more if we had our own facility.’

Coyote Works
Last year we started a program called ‘Coyote Works’ which is similar to ‘Hit the Streets’ in that it is very much focused on at-risk kids. We started with a community matching grant from the Department of Neighborhoods that specifically funds programs for youth in the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, SYVPI.  We had our second year of that program this fall, with different cohorts of cooking, welding, and spoken word.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

It’s a great program for us for a number of reasons: it brings in slightly older kids, they’re 13-15; it engages them in not only learning skills, but also in community service. The cooking cohort made meals for Straley House or the families at Nickelsville. The welding group made a bench for the bus stop right out here. We’re looking to expand Coyote Works, so that it’s not just in the fall. We’re trying to get funding to do it other times of the year.

At the end of the last Coyote Works session, staff and instructors got together and collaborated on what we could do to make it even stronger. We were really focused on, ‘How do we tweak this to make it as good as it can be?’ Then we got back the little surveys we passed out to the kids, and they all rated it: 8; 9; 10 out of 10. It was all positive. We thought, ‘Wow, I guess we must have done something right.’ The kids really seemed to like being here and what they were doing.

Bringing in the community 
Now, we’re always thinking, ‘Gee, how can we use this space?’ We invite in community members.  Lots of people use the kitchen.  Madrona K8 uses it for their 7th-grade poetry slam.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

We’re trying to get the building integrated into the community and available for youth and other community events and uses, hopefully all with a creativity orientation. We’ve partnered with Sawhorse Revolution, which is a group that works with high school kids doing woodworking projects for non-profits. They used our shop to build a structure for Green Plate Special, which is run by Laura Dewell, as you know.

Yes, who I so admire. 

It’s just great to have the facilities so we can open our doors and share them. We’d love to get Coyote families, neighbors, whatever, in for cooking events as well. That is a goal always, to bring in community. Still, everything takes time and we have a tiny staff and a lot of organizing going on all the time. We work very hard; we have great volunteer support. It seems to work.

How did you happen to get the building?

This particular building on 23rd & Cherry was ideal in so many ways for Coyote. It was the site of our first permanent public art project back in 1995, the art tiles around the façade, for Dilettante Chocolates when they had this building. We did that project for them, and lo and behold, fifteen years later we moved in. So, it’s felt sort of like karma.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Then, we happened to hit the real estate timing quite well in that the market was way, way down. We acquired the building in 2010, for less than half what it had sold for 2 years earlier.

Oh, that’s great. 

We never could have afforded it any other time. We spent a year completely renovating it. It was gutted and had been vacant for, I believe, five years.

We moved in the office in April of ’11 and then our first courses here opened in the summer of 2011.
In our first two years here we brought in 40% more kids. The building has had a huge impact on what we do and the number of kids we serve. We give scholarships every year. Last year we provided about $96,000 dollars in scholarships, so we have had an increase in scholarships that is more than commensurate with the increase in attendance, which means that we are in fact reaching a lot more kids from families that don’t have the means to pay tuition.

There’s no question that we are reaching more kids from the CD by being here. Just having the presence on this corner has been huge. I have to say, from the first year we were here ‘til now there’s less drug activity, less street life with a negative vibe. There’s no question that having the sidewalks full of kids in the summer is a good thing. It’s really great to have a lot of kids in a neighborhood.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

The lots to the east and behind us were not available when we first got the building. They were owned by another fellow who had permits for building ten live/work units. He wasn’t interested in selling because he was deep in the process, but we kept in touch. By December, when new housing was lying fallow all over town, he decided to sell it.

So we got a pretty good deal on those properties as well. It was a really big leap for little old Coyote to buy property. We had a stalwart board that just believed so strongly that we could make it great that they supported it. We got individuals, banded together and each loaned us some money so we could make an offer. It was a real group effort. We’ve just completed our capital campaign, so that’s really great.

There will be capital expenses over the years for maintenance and we are establishing a maintenance fund and all of that, but the amount we save on rent is just incredible (laughs). I mean, all of our occupancy expenses and every roll of paper towel and everything else, put that all together it’s a fraction of what our rental costs used to be, which is wonderful.

The fact that you own your building and have a strong board, you know this will last as long as there’s interest and people coming. You know that, for an arts organization, that’s huge. Very few artists have created what you and Marybeth have created, this place for experimenting, creative decision-making and taking risks. It’s like a dream come true. 

In a lot of ways, it is. Especially for kids who get fired up by what they get to do here, and find out just how much they’re capable of.  We’re going to do all we can to make sure every middle-schooler gets that opportunity.

Special thanks to Julia Eckels for her excellent transcription of the recording.

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2014   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by 4Culture HeritageProjects Program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The CentralAreaComm.blogspot.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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