Spotlight on Antonia Abram: Ph.D. Student and The Children’s Aid Society Arts Director ☆

Antonia is a doctoral student in History and Education, and is the Arts Director for The Children’s Aid Society, one of the nation’s largest non-sectarian agencies, founded to serve New York City’s neediest children.

What brought you to TC?

I started at TC in 2003 in the Master’s program in History and Education and came right from my undergrad experience at the University of Chicago where I studied Art History.  I’m a painter and I love the making of art.  I realized, though, what I really loved about Art History was the study of history through looking at objects:  Not just analyzing an object for what it was, but what its actual historic implications were.  This realization led me to doing a stricter study of history separate from art.

I did the Master’s program in a longer period of time than most students and graduated in 2006.  I took a little break then came back to TC to pursue my Doctorate in 2009.

This past June, TC co-hosted a conference with the Society for the History of Children & Youth (SHCY), which you helped produce.  How did you get involved?

I first worked with Dr. Crocco on a curriculum project based on a documentary film called “A Place Out of Time – The Bordentown School”, directed by Dave Davidson.  My advisor, Cally Waite, recommended me to Dr. Crocco to work with her on this project, since I have a real interest in industrial education (“Bordentown” is closely linked to that).

Can you give us a thumbnail on what the “A Place Out of Time — The Bordentown School” film is about, and how the curriculum project worked?

The film is about the Bordentown School, a boarding school for black students, founded in the late 1880’s, and then closed in the 1950’s after integration, when it looked like integration would work better in white schools than in black schools.  The film shows how this boarding school (in Bordentown, New Jersey) really promoted great self-esteem among the students who went there, how important it was to the students, and what a tragedy it was that it closed down because it couldn’t integrate. The black students had inspiring role models and a beautiful school environment that was equal to a boarding school that white students would go to.  While the school went through many phases as a manual training and industrial school, students learned great discipline, while still afforded the opportunity for intellectual and creative pursuits.  The students participated in maintaining the school and its buildings, and even helped in the operation of a farm there.  They took pride in the school.  But, after Brown vs. Board of Ed, only two white students attempted to attend.  The school was closed because it failed to integrate.

As for the curriculum project:  There are 10-12 essential questions that have lesson plans worked around them, based on themes and questions raised by the film.  Every lesson uses clips from the film to initiate more hands-on, art-related activities. For example, one lesson considers the shift in Black leadership from educators and clergy to lawyers and politicians as a result of the civil rights struggle post-World War II. Another lesson aims to have students analyze the effects of Jim Crow and the Great Migration in northern states and the greater efforts at segregation in response to this migration.

How did your research and your work as an artist blossom into your position as Arts Director at the Children’s Aid Society?

Studying the history of children and working at The Children’s Aid Society happened at the same time.   Plus, I was looking for a place with some sort of social consciousness where I could work with kids and make art.  The Children’s Aid Society really brought everything together.

The history of Children’s Aid has worked its way into a lot of what I’m studying.  I am interested in industrial education and prison education programs in New York state and New York City, and Children’s Aid has had involvement or influence in both those areas.  For instance, some of the first industrial schools for women were opened by The Children’s Aid Society.

I started working for The Children’s Aid Society part-time at the Milbank Center, which is on 118th Street and Lenox Avenue.  The director of the Education Program at the time was an amazing woman and a TC grad.  When she saw that I was a student at TC, she brought me in.  I worked in the Education Program at the Milbank Center and she and I got along wonderfully.  I went from there to working as the Art Director at the Philip Coltoff Center, which is right off Washington Square Park.

The mission statement of The Children’s Aid Society is simple yet vast:  Serving children and families who are suffering from the effects of poverty.  Can you please tell me about the organization and its history?

The Children’s Aid Society is a really amazing place. It is huge and it is the oldest non-profit in New York.   It was started as a Protestant social service organization by Charles Loring Brace in 1853.  It has been a part of a lot of social movements that most people aren’t aware of.  For instance, the foster care system, for all of its problems, was an invention of The Children’s Aid Society.

Another Children’s Aid invention—a big black spot for sure—was the Orphan Train program.  It was one of the Progressive Era projects to get orphan kids off city streets and put them into the fresh air.  These orphans were sent to live with families out West in order to get them out of an urban environment, allow them to live with a family, and to learn a trade.  There are a few Orphan Train success stories (two children went on to become governors), but unfortunately a lot of the children ended up being indentured servants, and the program ended in the 1920s.

The Homemakers Services Program was started by Eleanor Roosevelt and is still going today.  It is a program that trains women to go into homes to keep them together so that children are not taken away from their parents.  Usually it focuses around the absence of the mother:  If the mother in a family is incarcerated, in hospital, or for some reason cannot fulfill the functions of the head of household, then a trained Homemakers Services worker will step in.  She will spend a huge amount of time with the family to be sure the children are dressed properly before they go to school, that they have lunches packed, that dinner is made, that kids get homework help, things like that.

I read that the Phillip Coltoff Center of The Children’s Aid Society—your home base—is closing, and that there was a huge real estate deal surrounding the decision.

Yes, it is pretty huge news and a real tragedy for anyone who has been living in the Village for a long time.  We have 25 teachers who are real working artists.  Some have lived in the Village for a long time, so they are “old guard” Village folks.  It is a really great community center in an historically artistic neighborhood.

So, the activities that you direct, including ceramics, print-making and portfolio development, all sounds so wonderful and creative.  Is it all going away?

Yes.  As far as I know, Children’s Aid doesn’t have any plans to move the programming.  But the parent community and the teachers are certainly active enough.  The building itself won’t close until June 2012, so we have nearly a whole year.  There’s a lot of talk of moving the program to another location, to keep it together.  It would be amazing if that happened.   The challenge now is to find a place that can actually fit us and all of our equipment.

The press release announced that the Phillip Coltoff Center was being closed because The Children’s Aid Society efforts were being folded into areas with more need.  What are these areas?

Our new CEO, Richard Buery, has done a lot of amazing work, including starting a number of great organizations like Groundwork and iMentor.  He is developing a new medical facility for children in the South Bronx, along with a charter school.  So the sale of the Coltoff Center building will support the new developments in the South Bronx.

The Children’s Aid Society has an almost 225-year history.  What it is about the organization that allows it to still remain relevant?

The constant updates and changes to programming.  Changes are made to update the old and and keep up with current trends and current needs.  Charter schools, for all their problems, are very popular and give parents a lot of hope.  So by opening a charter school, Children’s Aid is staying in the game and remaining relevant. 

What is it like working towards your Ph.D. while having a full-time career?  Any advice?

It’s a lot of work!  I’m not sure if a lot of students think of school this way, but it seems to be pretty popular in the History and Education program:  The professors are incredibly helpful to let students work at their own pace.  At the same time, they are very encouraging so that we actually get our work done and graduate on time.  Cally Waite, in particular, is very understanding.  Different from a lot of institutions, our professors are entirely aware of all the different responsibilities that people have in addition to going to school.  I am trying to pay for school as I go, so that is why I have to take my time a little bit. Advice?  Have a great support network.  And dedicate a lot of weekend hours to the reading.

What’s next for you after you earn your Ph.D.?  What is your dream path?

Starting my own non-profit would be amazing.  And I would love to teach on a college level at a community college, or a smaller liberal arts college.

Would you like to continue your connection with teaching teens and kids, as you do now at The Children’s Aid Society?

I think that is one of the best ways to stay motivated.  Studying children, or studying the way children work, is a lot different than actually being with children every day.  Watching kids get excited about things that grow-ups forget to be excited about is really wonderful and helps you stay imaginative.  For me, it is important to be around kids for some part of the day.  It is nice to have a reminder of what imagination really means.

Has TC been the right environment for you to pursue your goals?

Yes.  I love TC and I would not want to go to school anywhere else!  The students in my program are a great support network, first of all.  And all of their research interests are really interesting.  The professors in the program are amazing. History and Education is a great program to do independent research and also to work with a group.  It’s not terribly rigid, so for anyone who has more independent ideas or who wants to do an interdisciplinary approach, TC is a great place to be able to do it.  It’s pretty open and moveable and great for anyone who is self-directed.