TPST Featured Alumnus Kevyn Bowles (COL '09)
A lifelong New York City resident, Kevyn Bowles became a teacher as a Corps Member with Teach for America after graduating from Georgetown University. Kevyn served as a part of the founding group of teachers of a new school, 27Q317 the Waterside Children’s Studio School in Rockaway Park, New York. After helping to lead the development of the performing and visual arts-based program there, designed to support the true academic, emotional, and creative development of all children, Kevyn was selected by the Office of New Schools at the New York City Department of Education to found and lead New Bridges Elementary – PS 532. Since the founding, New Bridges has grown to serve over 430 students from Pre-K through Fourth Grade.
Kevyn graduated from Georgetown University with his B.A. in Theater & Performance Studies and Sociology: Social Justice Analysis. As a corps member in Teach for America, he received his M.S. Ed in Special Education from Hunter College. He then graduated with an Ed. M in Education Leadership from the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College of Columbia University.
While at Georgetown, Kevyn appeared in productions including TPST’s Stuff Happens, Swimmy & Other Stories, Trees and Ghosts, and Wisconsin Death Trip and directed The Exonerated with Nomadic Theatre. Kevyn focused his studies on the intersection of social justice and the performing arts, culminating in a yearlong project with Washington, DC’s homeless community, in which he collaborated with men, women, and families experiencing homelessness to develop, write, and direct a play about empowerment, voice, and the value of home titled Address: Unknown.
Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center, Prof. Natsu Onoda Power discusses life after graduation with Kevyn Bowles (COL ’09)…
You are a living example of how our core values at Georgetown and TPST directly translate into an actual career/life choice. Is this something you imagined yourself doing while you were at Georgetown?
I always had an idea that I wanted to spend my life somewhere at the intersection of social justice and the arts—but I didn’t always know exactly what that was going to look like. My freshman year roommate now likes to tell a story about the afternoon I came back from class in the Davis Center and said “I think I’m going to start a school that’s all about using theater to make the world better.” I envisioned that my work would be centered on education. This vision grew out of my own educational experience. As a student, I had been greatly affected and shaped by the teachers, classmates, dialogue, practice, and hands-on experiences —particularly my time as a double major in Theater and Performance Studies and Sociology: Social Justice Analysis programs at Georgetown.
After graduation, I was placed by Teach for America in a brand new school that replaced a historically underperforming one in New York City and that idea I had as a freshman became a little clearer. Eventually, I was able to develop an application for, propose, and start New Bridges Elementary – PS 532 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At the core of our mission and approach is a full arts program (Music, Visual Art, Drama, and Dance) intended to empower the development of each child’s best self. One of our core values is Voice. We teach our kids, as young as 3, that having a Voice means speaking up for what is right, standing up to a challenge, and being true to who you are.
I so clearly remember a line from the show you devised with Nomadic Theatre your senior year: “You were given a voice for a reason. Now use it.” I remember thinking “I wish someone had told me that when I was much younger.” What you describe is the kind of education we all wish we had had as a child; your students are so fortunate. What has been your greatest challenge?
Wow, Natsu – I’m kind of overwhelmed by you saying that because you have to know that taking classes with you every year was an enormous part of how I figured out who I was and what I was saying. (And I hope you’ll include that because it’s true and important!)
In terms of challenges, it is hard to know where to start. Every day we face and work through obstacles big and small. For me, the day is never long enough to accomplish everything I want us to. But through any challenge, we always go back to our core values. The first one is Determination, and the only way to teach our students to never give up is to model that ourselves. So whether it is the challenge of supporting the needs of families—90% of whom live below the poverty line and 25% of whom are in temporary housing—managing the logistics of a 100 year old building, a $3 million budget, busing and breakfast programs, orchestras and basketball teams, providing professional development and training to almost 60 staff, or sitting in a classroom working through a book or a math problem with a student who is struggling, every day we name and face our challenges and try to come up with solutions.
One of the things that is truly challenging for me as an educator is the clash of idealism with “real-life” conditions. I frequently see many talented student-actors not get into graduate schools of their choice, or innovative student-activists choosing a corporate job because they need to financially support their families. The best advice you can give to a young activist-artist-scholar who is just graduating from college is to “never give up,” but what would you say to someone who has been discouraged? Is there an alternative to “giving up” when every road appears to be blocked?
This question is hard and it resonates with me—so long answer coming. And answering it doesn’t mean “here I am, my dream is achieved, so everyone can go and get theirs.” I started a school and that school while by some measures is successful, by most measures has a really long way to go. The dream is to have a school where all of the children are pushed to read, write, and think at or above grade level standards. The dream is to be able to provide mental health services to students who come to school with significant trauma and social-emotional needs. The dream is for the student chorus to play at the White House and at the Grammys! These dreams and many others are all a long way off. And we try and fail every day at different things on the way there.
The reason why teaching determination to students at such an early age is so important for us is because it is one’s mindset about self that can serve as a compass when faced with the life choices you are describing. There’s no easy answer, and sometimes, there’s no easy path. But I have to believe for myself, and try to develop the belief in our students, that if the vision you have for what you are meant to be or do is right, and you’ve evaluated it and it makes sense and is worthwhile, then you can’t stop. You might spend the rest of your life working to achieve it, and climb over, around, or through walls to get there, but if you’re meant to do it, you do have to do it. And so many of my friends and former classmates are living evidence of both the struggle and the value and potential of that struggle!
What do you think? You’ve faced roadblocks throughout your life, and stayed on your path. What do you tell the young artist?
Well Kevyn, it is YOUR interview not mine! We shall talk about my roadblocks next time we see each other—over a gallon of ice cream. I love your goals for the school because they are so specific and concrete. A phrase I dislike about theatrical activism is that a certain work “raises awareness.” I think it’s a cop-out. Theater should and can do more, in the process as well as in the product. You are doing this, making measurable differences in the world, using theater and performance as a tool. Our conversation reminds me of a piece you wrote during your senior year for The Hoya about the TPST program. Now that you have been out in the world for several years, is there anything you would add to or change about it?
I wrote that senior viewpoint based on what I had learned about the concept of “home” while at Georgetown, after concluding my thesis project working with people experiencing homelessness in DC. I wrote that I had learned that home didn’t just mean having a roof over our heads and warm food on the table, but that it was about a space to explore and understand our potential—who we are and everything that we can be. All I would add to that now is that once you find that space, you can keep it with you. I don’t have to go back to Georgetown to feel that sense of possibility and purpose, it travels with me.
I know we can keep going but I want to close by asking you about the peer relationships you formed as a student. How much does keeping in touch with your cohort from theater at Georgetown feed you at this stage in your life and career?
My classmates from Georgetown, from TPST and from Nomadic are more than a network—they’re a family. They are there lugging out trash when we have a volunteer cleanup day at the school, and cheering for our students when we put on our first musical. We aren’t all able to see one another as often as we might like, but the support runs deep. Everyone is constantly sending one another love and encouragement through Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and emails. And if somebody has an event, reading, show, or any opportunity where we can show up, we show up.
It’s been SO great to reconnect in this way, Kevyn!!! Much love and keep us posted in all you (and your students) are doing!
Thank you for your generous words, Natsu. I give Georgetown, TPST, Nomadic, and my number one mentor, YOU, so much of the credit for developing my skillset and influencing my approach!
…And I will hold you to that ice cream date. I’ve loved reconnecting this way as well.
You can read Kevyn’s Senior Reflection originally published in The Hoya here: http://www.thehoya.com/through-a-reimagined-senior-thesis-an-identity-found-on-the-hilltop/