After a restless youth in London and San Francisco playing in bands he swears we’ve never heard of, William Kendall’s life path only came into focus once he began working with at-risk youth.
“We could teach job training skills to someone experiencing homelessness,” he says. “Until they have a way to express themselves through art and music, it’s only half the package. Playing music with people, there are these moments when you nod at each other because the chord change is coming and you know things are happening. Isolated young people experiencing homelessness don’t have the chance to make these really deep, very emotional connections.”
Recognizing the desperate need for an organization that could help unhoused minors develop their own creative talents and relate to others through art and music, Kendall moved to Portland in 2005 and helped launch the Artist Mentorship Program as a means of redressing the glaring absence from existing resources.
As the program steadily expanded both services and ambitions in the past few years, Kendall became increasingly convinced that AMP required a formal home base to best fulfill its mission and, earlier this year, signed papers to take over Old Town’s Brody Theater.
As members hustle to refurbish the venerable former improv venue by mid-February, Kendall sat down with WW to discuss the discrete challenges and unexpected dividends of teaching kids how to educate themselves.
WW: How’d this all begin?
William Kendell: Basically, here’s our deal: AMP had been working in partnership with New Avenues for Youth, Outside In, p:ear, HomePlate, and just about every other youth services organization in town. As of [January], we’re building out our own space.
So, this isn’t a shelter.
We’re not a shelter, we won’t have beds, but there will be a drop-in center providing engagement services: meals, art, music, resources of that nature. Janus opens their doors at 8:45 pm for the Street Light & Porch Light shelters for young people experiencing homelessness between the ages of 15 and 25. So, we’re going to be focusing on the block between 4 and 8:30 to make sure young people have a warm space available. That’s when most of them are experiencing pretty dangerous situations—assault, getting incarcerated, violent situations.
Then, of course, we’ll have our recording studio and our art studio spaces. And there’s a stage inside the new building, so we’ll have performances as well. We want bands to come and play for our youth. We want fundraising opportunities. We definitely want concerts.
What’s the fire code capacity?
Like a hundred, probably. At this point, I don’t think we’d want to have more people or open it up to the general public outside of our normal hours unless it’s some sort of sanctioned fundraising event. Last October, we hosted our biggest one to date and packed Star Theater with a slew of amazing acts: Mic Crenshaw, Eyelids, Louder Than Moz. Storm Large rocked the house. The Macks basically peeled the wallpaper off the space.
What about concerts by the kids?
A lot of nonprofits go, “Hey, let’s do a performance so we can show people what we’re doing with their donations.” We’re not going to force young people who’ve experienced trauma into a stressful situation because we think it might be developmentally helpful.
Will there be classes?
Rather than telling them how to paint or play music, we want them to become their own educators. Most kids who come into our space say they’re no good at art. So let’s try something really simple? Pull this silkscreen across, lift it up, and they go, “Holy shit, I’m an artist!” Then, we’re off to the races.
And with music?
There are the virtuosos, obsessed with music, and we end up learning from them. Most of the time, trying to get an instrument into a kid’s hand…we just want to start off with one note, you know? Or, we’ll just break out mayonnaise buckets and start drumming in a circle.
Do you reach out to experts in different fields?
One kid kept talking specifically about this cat Sebo Walker who was an artist and professional skateboarder. So I contacted him through Instagram and sent an email—loveliest guy ever, totally down for the cause. He came in, partnered up with this kid to work on a mural together, and they went out skateboarding. Fucking rad, you know?
If a kid comes in wanting to talk with Yo Yo Ma, I’m going to find him. If I have a kid in front of me who wants to learn, I am going to do whatever it takes to get somebody in the building who will teach that subject. I’ll eat glass to make that happen.