Open the doors of TheGifted Arts studio on a Saturday morning and you can immediately feel the energy. The thumping beat of the music, the encouraging call outs from the instructors, and the students enthusiastically participating in the creative process. The atmosphere is electric.
TheGifted Arts’ co-founders CJ and Nicholé Morgan recognized the value of the skills and tools each of them learned through their own artistic experiences growing up - Nicholé’s focus on dance and poetry and CJ’s on music - and wanted to ensure every child had the same chance to grow through the arts. They found their opportunity while working at the local YMCA, deciding to take over a struggling teen program and make it their own - going deeper than a typical recreational arts program. “We do the arts, and that is the vehicle for a lot of the training and development,” says Nicholé, “But really our focus is to serve the whole child and build up their mental fortitude, confidence, and identity.”
Programming that Builds Resilience and Confidence
With the underrepresentation of Black and brown people in the arts, they saw the opportunity to move the needle by focusing the program’s attention on children of color, who often face significant disparities in their everyday lives, with the pandemic and associated traumas having multiplied many issues. “The reality is that racism is real and it’s not going anywhere, and it's deeply embedded in the fabric of our society, community, health care, housing, and education,” says CJ. “These are all experiences our young people will have to navigate. We work to help kids manage all that is going on, understand themselves, and figure out who they want to be.”
When George Floyd was murdered during the peak of the pandemic in the summer of 2020, students did not have a productive outlet to express their grief, as programming had been suspended. Recognizing the need to gather and process, CJ and Nicholé resolved to design outdoor programming all around Raleigh, including in Nash Square, Raleigh Union Station, and Dorothea Dix Park. The organization was fortunate to receive community support and funding despite the circumstances. “We sustained through a pandemic when some nonprofits were not able to do so,” said CJ. “We didn’t know some days if we were going to make it through after a lot of hard conversations at the dinner table during 2020 and 2021, but our children, the young people here, and this work is what kept pulling us back, alongside community support.”
The Vital yet Often Underappreciated Power of the Arts
An ever-present challenge for arts programs is that society sometimes views the arts as dispensable in difficult times – it is easier to see the more immediate and tangible needs of food and shelter, for example. CJ asks, however, "Who in the pandemic didn’t turn to the arts? Whether you were tuning in for a live streaming of your favorite artist or watching your favorite show on Netflix. That’s all artistic entertainment, and was vital to sustaining us all through the worst of the pandemic.” He also points out how important it is for people to not put the arts in a box but instead reflect on how the arts has impacted their own lives and how embedded it is in life’s most important moments. “Nine of the top ten critical moments of your life, there is some sort of art connected to it,” says CJ. “What is a first dance at a wedding without the music?”
Research clearly indicates the social and emotional power of the arts, and yet still it can be dismissed. Artistic involvement has been shown to exponentially increase high school graduation rates and academic advancement in general. Some kids may dread having to discuss a piece of literature in a classroom but can grab a script and deliver it to an audience of 200 people. The arts allows them to create freely in a safe space. Nicholé shared a story about a child with severe social anxiety and their involvement with TheGifted Arts. “The child was super introverted, would not talk to anyone even if you tried to engage in conversation,” she said. “And yet, the year she graduated, she sang a solo by herself on a stage in front of hundreds. This is such a powerful example of the impact the arts can have.”
Goals for the Future: Dreams Becoming Reality
CJ and Nicholé have ambitious plans for the future. Their most immediate need is to find a permanent home. Over the years as they have grown they have bounced around locations – from a church classroom to a space at East Garner Middle to a space in downtown Garner to where they currently are renting in downtown Raleigh. Their existing location they have until September, when it will be reclaimed to build condos. For long-term brand building they need to find a permanent space, but are still on the hunt.
The dream is to one day have a “mega center” for performing arts which would evolve into a school. “TheGifted” being one word is no mistake, as CJ and Nicholé imagine it could apply to almost anything – “TheGifted Science,” “TheGifted Sports,” and so on. CJ was really drawn to the word “gifted” from his experiences as a school counselor for 14 years and working with students with either special education plans or individualized education plans. While there were so many challenging factors for these students, he kept coming back to the fact that there is a gift in everyone.
Their dream of seeing tangible impact with their students is also becoming a reality. Niah is one of three siblings who participated in the program and whose mother currently serves on the Board. She now teaches hip hop in the program and recently founded her own dance company. One of her siblings opened their own DJ production company and tours with professional artists, and the youngest sibling has appeared on the STARZ network. Nicholé says, “Now they’re doing things we haven’t even done. That’s what it’s about!”
Mission: To strengthen the character, confidence and leadership skills of youth, empowering young people to be bold in their aspirations and become agents of social change in their communities. We strongly believe in the power of intention - that by providing in-depth opportunities for personal development, expression through the arts and access to caring adults youth are then able to discover and manifest their personal power, unique gifts and talents.
Primary service area (county): Wake
To learn more about how you can get involved with TheGifted Arts, click the button below.