Mikel Bresee and CCS’s Community Arts Partnerships

April 5, 2024

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Twenty-two years ago when Mikel Bresee interviewed for a position in what was a new department at CCS called Community Arts Partnerships (CAP), youth arts programming in Detroit was a completely different place than it is today. The College had a few after-school programs, but no presence in the K-12 Detroit community. During those two decades, Mikel led the CAP department and worked to bridge the gap in youth arts education and resources for more than 72,000 Detroit youth.

The Beginning Days

“I was ready to hunker down in Detroit for a while. I didn’t think it would be 22 years.”

– Mikel Bresee

In 2001, then-CCS president, Rick Rogers, hired Mikel to develop an arts program that connected CCS to youth communities in Detroit. “CCS realized it needed to do more in terms of outreach to its community,” Mikel said. “CAP reflected the College’s real commitment to change.”

Working in communities with few elementary school art programs, it was imperative to Mikel that CAP provided an accessible experience for every student. “Initially what we did, no non-profit organization or artist organization did in Detroit. We started from square one with the youngest kids in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. These young students naturally loved creating art. We gave students a space to be creative and inspired – where they could explore without striving to perform in a pre-prescribed way. It was freedom.”

Focusing on community became an integral part of CAP’s and CCS’s mission. This meant leaning on community members and partnerships such as Brightmoor Alliance and The Skillman Foundation – all with existing ties to the Detroit educational system. Mikel credits Larry Lunsford, now assistant director of Community Arts Partnerships at CCS, in particular with being an extraordinary resource and partner. Larry helped develop the program with Mikel, ensuring programmatically “they didn’t get too far out on a limb with the community.”

“I was at CCS when Rick Rogers brought in Mikel – a young, energetic guy from Chicago. And we’ve been joined at the hip as brothers of discovery for twenty-two years,” said Larry. “We needed the combination of the two of us to get into the tough communities we were trying to reach. We had to establish ourselves in community centers, churches and schools to show that we wanted to give young people an opportunity to learn these skills. Mikel has done some noble work. He’s turned some lives of people around who would never have thought of the arts as a career. His fingerprint is all over the city.”

Through these partnerships, CAP was able to focus on six neighborhoods initially – Brightmoor, the North End, Southwest Detroit, the West Side and the Jefferson/Chalmers Detroit communities. “Everything we do is a partnership and a really crucial part of what we do. We do nothing as CCS alone,” said Mikel.

Another partner who helped lift up the CAP program is Terry Whitfield, Partnership Manager – Policy and Systems at The Skillman Foundation. For the past seven years, Terry and Mikel have worked collaboratively on after-school programming for Detroit schools in the creative youth development space. “Mikel is a clear example of living in your truth and honest reflection of what the system and community needs, while holding true to how powerful the arts as a medium can be,” Terry said.

One pathway Terry is most proud of is the annual art exhibition that The Skillman Foundation hosts in collaboration with CAP. Middle school and high school students in Detroit are invited to display their artwork in an exhibition housed at The Skillman Foundation. This type of exposure and engagement offers a unique opportunity for students to express, display and amplify their voice through this medium in which thousands of people will view in this setting.

“What Mikel has taken on is ministry,” shares Terry. “What it means to preach a mindset and support that space and believe that theory of change – creating a safe space for youth to hone in their passion, understand it and take it as far as they want to.”

Generational Effect

“Stand back, create space and watch what happens.”

– Mikel Bresee

As the first group of elementary students grew into middle and high school students, the CAP program expanded to encompass K-12 programming. After 10 years, it was undeniable that CAP was needed throughout the community. The program grew to service more areas and continues to expand.

A crucial element to the success of CAP is the teacher training program for ‘teaching artists’ who are instructors in CAP’s programs. One-quarter of CAP’s teaching artists are former CAP students and another quarter are CCS alumni.

The significance of the ‘full-circle’ part of the program is not lost on Mikel. “I’m most proud of seeing that generation that we helped guide come into its own. To leave after 22 years and have people I saw in elementary school sitting behind desks in the program I had a hand in developing is incredibly profound.”

Since Jan. 2001, CAP has served more than 72,000 students – most from Detroit. This has involved over 325 different partner organizations, 41% of which were DPSCD schools. CAP has put more than 240 community artists through their “Training for Artists in Community Education” Teaching Artist development program and the CAP staff reflect the communities that they serve themselves – 82% of whom live in Detroit, Highland Park, or Hamtramck, and 69% of whom identify as non-white.

And while Mikel admits after graduating from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, he had planned on starting a career as an artist. He never imagined a lifelong career in community arts programming. “I came out of school thinking I’d be on the cover of Art News. This program allowed me to build institutionally around that. When I was the one making the art, I affected a certain number of people. The more I stopped being the person who made the art and started fostering the art being made, the more impact my work had.”

After two decades of building this program and setting it up for success, Mikel will leave CCS in June 2024. Succeeding Mikel in the director’s role will be longtime staff members Larry Lunsford and Lynn Blasey, acting as co-directors. “With Mikel leaving CCS and Lynn and I at the helm of CAP now, we want to grow, expand and be more available. The need is certainly there. We are trying to reach as many children as possible to ignite life inside of them and show them the transformative power of art.”

“When I first arrived at CCS, I was excited to find a robust and far-reaching art education program that engaged the community of Detroit in sincere, authentic, and inclusive ways,” said President Don Tuski. “What Mikel has accomplished in 22 years is incredible and profound. His dedication to youth arts education and the Detroit community is something to model and celebrate. As we look back at two decades of collaboration, innovation and education, it is clear that Mikel will be missed at CCS. Looking toward the future, I know that Larry Lunsford and Lynn Blasey, both of whom have worked with Mikel to build this program, will continue to grow CCS’s Community Arts Partnerships program as co-directors, while maintaining the excellence and partnerships that Mikel established.”