Seattle is known as both a place of artistic expression and of issue advocacy. On one hand Seattle is a place where creativity flourishes and bursts forth in the form of game-changing music, technology, and art appreciation centers; while on the other hand advancing the rights of workers, launching innovative youth outreach programs, and addressing race & social justice issues head-on.
It there is one person that exemplifies Seattle’s dual personality it is artist and youth advocate David Toledo. A published author, illustrator, musician and playwright; 10 years ago David stepped back (slightly) from the limelight in order to focus on youth advocacy; stopping youth violence, and using the arts to give a new direction to many of Seattle’s at-risk teens.
David and team recently wrapping up the Unified Outreach summer classes and highly acclaimed “Work Training in the Arts” program. David agreed to sit down with us over a plate of wings and biscuits in Seattle’s Central District.
David: That’s my high school right there. They’ve done a lot of renovations but I still like to walk the yard once in a while or slip inside after hours just to breeze through the hallways.
YAC: Good memories?
David: Definitely. I wish I could go back and do it all again… But I’m sure that’s what most people say.
YAC: You graduated Garfield in 1988?
David: I was blessed to attend Garfield in the mid 80’s, when the city was exploring cross-city busing as a way to desegregate the Seattle and heal divisions caused by neighborhood redlining. If you look at my Facebook page you’ll see about 70% of my friends were met at Garfield; but I actually graduated from Ingraham after I was transferred closer to home my senior year.
YAC: Has the neighborhood changed since you attended Garfield?
David: I think there is truth to the gentrification argument, that families that have lived in the area for generations being driven out. Families redlined into the area due to discriminating housing practices that found the good and settled here to put down roots, bought houses, and planned on establishing a home for their children and grandchildren.
“City officials have surrendered to developers, and those that are advocating for the community are just too radical.”
And now we are talking about micro housing and more development but no one is talking about how that will affect the quality of life in the area. What are the pros and cons? We have to get a handle on affordable housing issues, and do so in a responsible way. So far it looks like our city officials have surrendered to developers, and those that are advocating for the community are just too radical. We need honest mediators to bring both sides together.
YAC: What would you like to see?
David: Not all development is bad. I walked these streets in the 80’s and 90’s and I’m not afraid to share both the triumphs and the tragedies of that time period. New construction is needed, but we need to respect local establishments that have historical significance. How can the community partner with the developers to honor these locations?
Anyway, I know you didn’t come here to talk about housing issues. I’m sure you’d rather talk about all the exciting things we’re doing with the arts.
YAC: August 30th the Unified Outreach program held its annual youth Fashion Expose. Can you tell us a little about the work training in the arts program?
David: Of course, but first let me give you some history. Being artists ourselves, the volunteers have known the importance of networking and career tracks in being successful. Politicians are quick to use the quote Pastor Greg Boyle “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”, and we believe that. However, putting a job in a low income area doesn’t mean that the youth in that area will have access to it. Which, by the way is why I favor tax breaks or other incentives for hiring employees that live in the same district as the business, but that’s another subject.
Like most who are involved with youth programs we continually heard of kids taking art classes or workshops offered throughout the city- but once the student graduated he/she didn’t know what to do with their newfound artistic skills. So in 2010 we began engaging Mayor McGinn regarding the need for career tracks for any arts programs receiving funding from the city. We suggested that if a group was seeking city funding that one of the requirements be that the facility provide their students with direction beyond the classroom, and offered our Youth Fashion Expose as an example. Now one thing about Mayor McGinn is he loved and engaged both Seattle’s youth and the arts. Mayor McGinn didn’t just listen, he acted, and in 2011 launched the City’s “Work Readiness in the Arts” program, connecting the Office of Arts & Culture, Seattle’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (SYVPI), and Non-Profit Arts programs in a partnership to provide job training skills in various artistic mediums. The program doesn’t have the mandatory “education track or networking” component that we sought, but it is a step in the right direction.
YAC: Which brings us to the Youth Fashion Expose’?
David: Exactly! So what this program offers is work training in event production and management. We offer the Fashion Expose in partnership with Carlisia Minnis/MAC Fashion House and Lika Love, as well as a Music Industry course featuring Seattle rap artist TYRONE (aka Tyrone Dumas) which is incredible.
“Kids need educational or career direction beyond the initial classroom training.”
In these programs Unified Outreach partners with SYVPI to train 10 at-risk youth (per program) to plan, promote, and deliver an industry level community event. During a 6-week period students learn facilities management, sound & lighting, promotions, stage set-up, video production, and more. Then on the final night our instructors step back and allow the students to take full control of the show. Afterwards we spend a week of programming helping the youth to build resumes, obtain contact information for designers, artists, promoters, and other networking opportunities. The kids leave the program with the skills to put on any type of large scale event, as well as a strong resume which includes a DVD of the performance and behind the scenes footage.
YAC: That is an incredible program. I agree that kids need educational or career direction beyond the initial classroom training. Your program fills a much needed void in the arts community! Now let’s talk a little about your personal history. I think it’s especially appropriate that we talk about your roots in hip hop since we are just steps away from your high school and the spot of one of your most famous works of art? At one time you were considered one of the best graffiti artist’s in Seattle. Can you tell me about that?
David: I suppose I had some neighborhood fame during hip hop’s golden era, back around 1983-1985. I was pretty well known for doing hip hop art back then. Unlike today, there weren’t a lot of street artists who did full scale murals, really there were only a handful. So the minute I put up a 30 foot burner on the Garfield High track field I established myself. After that if I was at Sir Mixalot jam at the YMCA or Boy’s Club I had a little group of aspiring artists that would congregate around me.
YAC: So you were Seattle’s first graffiti muralist?
David: Oh no! Not at all. As a matter of fact my first inspiration was the block-long graffiti mural by Kuo (aka Mr. Clean) that changed my life. I had never seen anything like it. But by this time there were already other artists establishing themselves with large pieces, such as Spraycan, DadOne, Spaide, Skreen, Nemo, KeepOne, Solo Doe, Faze, Bazerk, and others. But I had really strong characters, and that helped my pieces to get a little more attention; but all said and done, most of those cats were better with a spray can than me.
YAC: At what point did you transition from walls to canvas?
David: I met graffiti artist Sean (Nemo) Casey in 1986. I had already stopped going out at night and began focusing on my music & dance crew (the Ducky Boys) which had been gaining notoriety at local dance clubs in Seattle and surrounding areas. I think Nemo and I painted 2 walls together, then Nemo suggested that we really start focusing on canvases. He was into all kinds of artistic mediums, truly gifted.
YAC: Let’s quickly touch on your dance crew, the Ducky Boys.
David: So there was a period where kids were growing out of breakdancing, but still looking for something to do at the club (other than dance with girls, go figure). Enter “the prep” which was a dance battle of sorts. So kids would have “prep crews” that would go out and dance against each other. During this brief period (85-87) the most well-known crews (thanks to our appearance on Seattle Bandstand) were the Masters of the Prep (later known as PPIA), the Ballard Boys, and the Ducky Boys. The dance crew slowly evolved into a musical group with the help of DJ’s Spencer Reed and Kelly Peebles.
YAC: That sounds like fun.
David: It was a great time in my life. But there were also a couple of times that the guys and I had to fight our way out of the club because the regulars didn’t like to see us win cash prizes in the dance contests.
“He literally had pressed me up over his head and was going to throw me through the storefront window.”
YAC: Really? Dance-fight? Like in West Side Story?
David: (Laughs) not quite. Some of these fights were pretty serious, there was one fight where I was literally pressed over this guy’s head and thought he was going to throw me through the storefront window, and honestly, he could have if he wanted to. Thankfully he decided to simply body slam me to the floor. I’m truly grateful that God never allowed me to go through a window, or to be too severely damaged in a fight, because I put myself in a lot of unnecessary situations trying to represent my crew.
YAC: I think that a lot of kids are dealing with that same mentality today. There is a willingness to do some pretty crazy things in order to impress our friends.
David: It’s true. The respect and approval of your friends means so much at that age. It’s funny, because in the situation where I was almost thrown through the window, the guy I got into it with that day probably had more in common with me than anyone else I was hanging with at the time. He’s gone on to be an author of children’s books, he’s a concert promoter, and he’s really sharp. If he and I would have sat down with our business hats on we might be running a Fortune 500 company today, man I’d like to have a do-over there.
YAC: Do you remember what you were fighting about?
David: Sadly, I don’t. Which means it was probably something pretty silly. I can honestly say that most of the altercations I was involved in were due to my trying to protect others. Do you remember the scene in Forrest Gump, when Forrest sees the hippie boyfriend slap Jenny, and Forrest goes over the table to get him? I guess I was everybody’s Forrest Gump back then. Even today, it’s hard for me to sit still when I see a person physically or verbally attacking someone who isn’t equipped to fight back. People can be so mean, and there are some out there that escalate their hostility when they see the person they are attacking is not fighting back.
YAC: But in this case?
David: In this case I’m ashamed to say that I think we were fighting about who placed where in a recent dance contest. It was something really silly, and shamefully embarrassing.
YAC: Do you feel that having similar experiences helps you to better understand the kids you work with?
David: I think it helps. But these kids are also dealing with things that I could never imagine at that age. Social media brings peer pressure and bullying to a whole new level. But we just try to lead by example. I share my stories, successes and failures, in hopes that it helps them to make the right decisions if ever found in similar situations.
David: Wait a minute. We’re doing it again. We’re way off track if this is meant to be a story about the arts program.
YAC: Well, we’re here to talk about the program but I think your history is also important in understanding what drives you. But okay, back to the gallery showing. You artists just can’t seem to stay focused.
David: (Laughs) Okay, so I met Nemo, who was already doing gallery showings featuring his work with aerosol. My first pieces were aerosol works as well, featuring hip hop style letters and characters; but I quickly moved from spray-paint to oils and acrylics. So my early showings were a mixture of both traditional and contemporary works. One canvas would have a hip hop character and letters, the next canvas would be an oil painting of an old man drinking coffee. The dramatic leaps of style and mediums impressed some, while leaving others trying to make sense of what, when, and how they were connected.
YAC: And from there your next project was what?
David: I think the early 1990’s were some of my most commercially creative years. During this time I wrote and acted in various plays, was the lead writer and illustrator for a number of comic books, and performed with Seattle alternative-band “Silly Rabbit” and the rap group Moving Target, along with my brother Dawny and Esera Mose (also releasing and album of the same name).
YAC: Things were really moving along. Then what happened?
David: By 1996 I was working a full time desk job and really focused on a steady white-collar pay check. I dabbled in various artist mediums, but only sporadically. But there was also something missing. I had grown up with a mother who was very involved in helping others. She took in refugees, let families from church stay with us, and housed foster children. In the late 1970’s she and a few friends began a soup kitchen at one of the senior housing complexes in Greenwood, and in the early 80’s she started one of the first neighborhood food-banks, from our front porch. This was a single mother, raising 4 kids on her own, working nights to make ends meet. But despite her own struggles she was always asking how she could help others; delivering and cooking food, sowing buttons, lending a friendly ear, whatever was needed.
“We operated for nearly a decade with absolutely no funding other than what the volunteers put into the program.”
So here I was, almost 30, and wondering how I could make a difference. So I started volunteering at a transitional housing shelter in the Central District. I would go in once a week and draw or paint with the kids, and that’s where my love of youth programming began.
YAC: Would you say that was the beginning of the Unified Outreach program?
David: In a way, yes. So as I began volunteering at other shelters I started to ask other artist friends of mine to help out. When we would show up to do art classes people would ask what group we were with. So eventually we thought that we needed to establish a name for the group, and Unified Outreach was born. That was 1998 when we actually put a name to the program. We applied for and received 501c3 Charity status in 2004.
YAC: So you actually celebrated 10 years of charitable status this year? Congratulations!
David: Oh yeah, I hadn’t even thought about that. 16 years of programming, with the last 10 years under the 501c3 status. It’s be a very rewarding, full of ups and downs, but very rewarding. And during this time I think I really grew as a person. I spent two years in North Los Angeles/Inglewood volunteering at Christ Gospel Mission as well as the Greater Bethany Food Bank advocating for the homeless, working with at-risk youth, and trying to get a better grasp of issues that affect those around me. Here in Seattle I’ve worked on affordable housing issues, spoken out against corruption and cronyism in our state government, and called for a return of arts programs to our public schools.
YAC: What do you see in the future for Unified Outreach?
David: We really have a lot of programs that are being initiated by former students. There is a production group that meets weekly at our studios, completely made up of former students and other youth. I believe the oldest in the group is 20 or 21 years. They are using the sound booth and video equipment with a goal of producing ready for network commercials and television sitcoms within the next 2 years.
And of course we’re looking at other options for future work training in the arts programs such as cartoon animation, ebook publishing, healthy living programs and other ideas.
YAC: Any personal arts projects for David Toledo?
David: I’m working on a cartoon series called the Mascots, and finishing a short script for theater, hopefully both to be completed by the end of 2015.
YAC: What would you say is Unified Outreach’s biggest accomplishment?
David: I think just surviving. We operated for nearly a decade with absolutely no funding other than what the volunteers put into the program. We didn’t receive our first grant until 2011. We kept the program alive and running with love, sweat, and tears.
“They continued to spin the story that Unified Outreach had somehow broken the law, calling for arrests and threatening to come down to the art center and confront the kids.”
YAC: Was there ever a time when you thought about closing the doors?
David: Yes, sadly there was, and it was tied directly into our first grant, although it was really just about politics. In 2011 Unified Outreach had received a check from the City for $1000.00 to help with printing of a youth arts newspaper. My sister was running for office at the time, and supporters of her political opponent attacked our program in an attempt to smear her. As one would expect the kids writing the articles wrote about what they were doing and seeing at the time, including writing about my sisters run for office since it was something they heard me talking about daily. Nothing over the top, just some general articles about her run which I still think were very fair and balanced. Seeing an opportunity to attack my sister, her opponents complained to the city and the elections commission about the paper being political literature.
YAC: Wow. What happened?
David: The city officials called us in a panic, worried about being caught in the middle of a political war. Before they even asked we offered to give the money back in order to help calm the situation, I wrote them a check that morning. The elections board looked at the newspaper and agreed with us that there was no wrongdoing, and closed the case. However, the political partisans continued to spin the story that Unified Outreach had somehow broken the law, calling for arrests and threatening to come down to the art center and confront the kids.
That is the thing that still turns my stomach, how adults can do something so despicable as to harm children (even emotionally) just to gain the political upper hand. Our kids went from feeling like they had accomplished something major, the production of a complete newspaper – written, drawn, photographed, and published by youth, to feeling like they did something wrong.
(At this point David’s lip quivers, as he seems shaken recounting the events).
Because of those threats we had to think about protecting our students from the mental and potential physical abuse by these political fanatics. So we closed the doors for a time and cut back on programming until after the race was over. Once we thought that our students were safe to return we began to schedule classes again.
YAC: That’s terrible. I’m glad that you were able to regroup and to continue with your programming. It’s hard to believe that people can be so wicked, but then again, politics is a dirty game.
I’m not sure if this is a good Segue but over the past few years you have really grown from just and artist into many different areas of advocacy, from curbing youth violence, race & social justice, fair housing, and more. You seem to have become a real activist.
David: I think that being active in the community demands that we engage on issues that are important to people. I always try to approach the dialogue with a humble heart; but we never know where inspiration may come from. Even if someone has completely different ideas about how things should work, there may be some areas of common ground, and if we listen, there may be some good ideas mixed in with the rhetoric.
YAC: You’ve recently made attempts to engage Mayor Murray’s office regarding a proposal to establish a department of inner city affairs?
“The proposal received strong opposition from department-heads within the Mayor’s office that feared losing their funding.”
David: Yes, during the summer of 2014 the Central District and Rainier Valley saw a dramatic increase in youth violence and murders. Over 10 youth murdered, over 20 overall murders, and over 50 reported gunshots in a 4-month period. Senior members of the community were crying out for outside the box thinking to engage youth. Our steering committee put together what we felt was a solid blueprint for the creation of a new department that would cultivate a new partnership between community leaders and public safety officials and access previously unobtainable community resources.
YAC: And the results of the proposal?
David: The Mayor’s office refused to meet with us, stating that they already had programs in place to deal with youth violence. Additionally, I understand the proposal received strong opposition from department-heads within the Mayor’s office that feared losing their funding.
I think the proposal was also just a little too radical. Our design involved recruiting people from the neighborhood; some of which lacked the usually required degrees, in fact many might not even have their high school diplomas, and maybe had police records, whose only education was on the streets, but that the kids doing the violence know and look up to. These people didn’t fit into the Mayor’s plan for youth engagement. The city still sees the best course of action to curb the violence as college educated counselors and social workers from Ivy League Schools.
It was also mentioned to us by inside sources that there was a fear that meeting with us would give the proposal and the proposed community leader’s legitimacy and shine a spotlight on areas that our city officials would rather keep in the dark.
YAC: Like turning on a light in the kitchen and seeing roaches scatter?
David: The message we got is to not rock the boat. So rather than continue to beat on a closed door we are looking at other ways to bring change on a smaller scale. We must continuing to engage kids in one-on-one relationships through arts programs, music, mentoring, and just being a part of the community.
And thankfully there are other great programs that are active in the area that we hope to partner with in the future. Groups like B.U.I.L.D. and programs like Hack the CD that have outstanding leadership and are making a difference where they are needed most.
YAC: I feel like we could sit and talk about arts programs and community involvement all day, but we have to end the article at some point. Let me rattle off a few topics and please try to answer in one or two sentences if possible.
“Other than the festivals, Seattle Center is always deserted, but that’s what happens when you have an Arts Commission that is heavily populated with lawyers and real estate developers.”
YAC: Best thing about growing up in Seattle.
David: Summertime at Greenlake and at the Seattle Center Fun Forrest. Two things break my heart, going to Greenlake and seeing “no swimming due to toxic algae” and visiting Seattle Center and seeing a once vibrant community meeting place practically a ghost town. Other than the festivals, Seattle Center is always deserted, but that’s what happens when you have an Arts Commission that is heavily populated with lawyers and real estate developers.
YAC: Favorite thing about Seattle today?
David: Seahawks baby!
YAC: First thing you would do if you were the Mayor?
David: Personal camera’s on police officers. We need that to protect our officers who put their lives on the line every day and need that documentation when they are forced escalate a situation. And we need it for our communities who may have lost confidence in our public safety offices due to past experiences.
YAC: If you could talk to the David Toledo of 1990 what would you say?
David: Find and marry a good woman. We are created as incomplete beings; having a partner that you can share this journey with is a blessing that I took too long to embrace.
YAC: Your hero?
David: My mom, who I love with all my heart.
YAC: Favorite thing to do?
David: Dance-off competitions with my daughter, nephews, and nieces.
YAC: Advice for struggling artists?
David: Find artists with similar drive, ambition, and vision and build together.
YAC: Advice for political activists?
David: (laughs) No, no advice. I’m still figuring it out, and what I do know about politics, I don’t like.
YAC: Final words?
David: I’ll just leave you with a favorite scripture, James 2:15 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: M. KaPOWsley
PHOTOS MAY BE USED WITH PUBLICATON OF THIS ARTICLE.