Young people leading us to peace at Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA)

What if the community invested in young people leading the way to a peaceful world?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA) emerged out of the metro area's 1993 “summer of violence,” as a response which used art as a positive social and economic force along the Colfax corridor in Original Aurora, Colorado. Early support came in the form of prevention funding which allowed documentation and evaluation of the program impact. Over the following years the program evolved to meet the changing demographics of the surrounding community. In this neighborhood young people still face many of the challenges of poverty and violence that characterized the area at the organization’s founding. By the late nineties, we had developed three year-round programs for kids ages 3-17: OASIS Open Studio and more advanced options for middle school youth known as Job Training in the Studio Arts and Computer Arts, and a Family Arts Program, recognizing the potential for involving the whole family through early childhood education. DAVA is recognized as an incubator for youth innovation—and we share their ideas with key stakeholders, including local government, the Anschutz Community to Campus Partnership, the University of Colorado Hospital, Aurora Mental Health, the Aurora Cultural Arts District, Aurora Public Schools and local colleges and universities. The goal is always to invest in the often unrecognized talents of inner city children and youth, leading to a canopy of learning and leadership opportunities that extend beyond school and into the wider metro region.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)
  • Middle Eastern or North African (for example: Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Algerian)
  • Native American or Alaska Native (for example: Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupial Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community)
  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Colorado

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Colorado

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Aurora, Denver

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Many students at DAVA come from areas of conflict or see violence on the news, at school or in the community. Yet in the schools and in civic life more broadly young people are rarely afforded opportunities to design a more peaceful world. In schools, agency and a sense of belonging often fall secondary to content standards and testing. In the public sphere, young people are often told to wait to participate until they are of a certain age. Young people at DAVA have articulated a clear critical response to violence in the world. Symbols of Peace have figured into art projects throughout the history of DAVA and directly reflect the concerns of immigrant and refugee youth. DAVA youth are taking peaceful practice forward with a clear focus on Peace Activism.

DAVA provides a consistent, long-term, location for kids ages 3-17 to feel safe and supported. Specific issues we approach through the arts include the same primary challenges faced by our refugee and immigrant student population:  new language, new school, and new social systems.  At DAVA we offer innovative and inclusive approaches to developing communication skills, teamwork, and creativity—all identified as critical to the 2lst century workforce.  DAVA’s method increases communication skills; it promotes a sense of agency and identity and furthers connection to community. 

DAVA has developed a trusted model for youth engagement that increases protective factors and fosters a sense of personal health and well-being.  After twelve years of prevention funding in 2007 we received a national NASADAD award for innovative prevention programming and in 2014 the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for excellence.

DAVA youth are 64% Hispanic, 13% African American, 14% white, 6% multi-ethnic, and 3% Asian. Our entire student population is impacted by their proximity to Colfax Avenue, which has a metro-wide reputation for criminal activity.  Area youth are at-risk due to social factors including poverty, high rates of transience, gang involvement, exposure to drugs and alcohol, and low community attachment.  87% of DAVA youth are part of free and reduced school lunch programs, and 60% are ESL learners.

DAVA teaching staff delivers a progression of creative learning opportunities that position young people as leaders. Programs have grown to include cutting edge curricula that enhance linkages between artistic learning and frequently expressed youth interests in peace, in cultural connections, and in their local community.  Additionally, DAVA excels in keeping pace with technological advancements and integrating those tools into artistic work, using a method that captures research and dialogue along with the material rendering of ideas into form. These opportunities are free to young people during the school year with expanded hours over the summer. DAVA is seen as a stabilizing influence in our community, using the arts to build bridges that will help achieve progress for children and youth.

DAVA’s work is also guided by a commitment to evaluation and to demonstrating that the types of outcomes we track are of value in measuring positive youth development through aggregating data within an alliance of nationally recognized Creative Youth Development agencies locally.  For example, in 2015, our ongoing use of the Youth Outcomes Toolkit (analyzed by the National Research Center) showed that 88% of young people felt that being in DAVA programs helped them to have more respect for young people of other cultures, races or ethnic groups. Additionally, 74% said that being at DAVA helped them feel they are "better at handling whatever comes their way." Accountability and the consistent tracking of youth development related to social and emotional learning is key to our collaborative efforts with schools, mental health resources, foundations, and families.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Creative Youth Development: afterschool programs combining arts education/positive youth development

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Hiram began at DAVA as a member of our job training program. He formed a strong relationship, with a teacher who works both in our on-site program and our outreach at Hiram’s high school. Hiram continued with DAVA for multiple years, and has demonstrated leadership in his art and through mentoring of peers. He created artistic products ranging from wearable robots to woven sculpture using found materials. He has invented creative solutions, such as batteries, sound, and lights for the skateboard he uses to commute. Hiram said about his experience, “At DAVA, I learn the true meaning of being a leader. These are skills I will take with me through life. It’s not just about becoming artists, it’s about becoming leaders of our community.”

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our program have a strong impact through engagement and retention of a diverse youth population, and we document and analyze how our programs and teaching staff support critical learning outcomes that sustain students in life beyond DAVA. Our 2015 National Research Center survey reveals that that 76% of participants feel that they “work better with others on a team,” 85% feel “prepared to work at a job,” and 85% “feel that they make more positive choices.” DAVA is committed to designing programs that directly attend to the needs of our youth participants. This includes many new immigrants from Central and South America, Africa and Asia who live in adjoining neighborhoods. Our ongoing challenge is to construct supportive experiences for these students that will address their desires to learn to effectively navigate and express themselves within educational, social, and language systems.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our organization secures funds from foundations, corporate and individual sponsors, and government agencies. Returning to some of the funding "roots" of this organization, we are actively pursuing funds in mental-health, community health and well-being, and prevention. DAVA has a successful track record of budget growth. Last year we finished in the black, we have no debt, and own our building.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are other community arts organizations in our metropolitan area and each of the programs in our region, and many others nationwide, offer unique approaches to supporting youth agency through the arts. Where DAVA outshines most is our duration and depth of community engagement with programs as a trusted presence in the community for over 20 years. In addition, our innovation lies at the juncture of art and technology, keeping pace with technological advancements and integrating those tools into artistic work.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

We envision a bright future where young people are prepared to demonstrate leadership in roles that draw upon their creative talents. As such, the most positive shifts that we can imagine include having powerful sites of community stability that network learning opportunities for young people with tangible opportunities to construct a more peaceful world. Organizations like DAVA can fill that role, both by bringing together supporters who appreciate the value of creative youth development, and to share findings about the importance of spaces outside of schools.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

DAVA offers year round access to experiential learning, Monday-Friday, through a progression of arts programs for young people (ages 3-17), guided by trained arts educators. Programs include: Family Arts, for ages 3-6 and their guardians; OASIS Studio, a drop-in, experimental space for elementary students; and Middle School Job Training (Computer and Studio Arts), more advanced education in art and technology with a method that includes dialogue, research, idea generation, fabrication, and exhibition. Students come from economically distressed households (98% free/reduced lunch).

Community Leadership

DAVA programs are largely driven by the young people in our programs. DAVA evolved from the expressed desire of our community for quality after school programs. Now, yearly themes at DAVA are directly shaped by participants in the Youth Advisory Committee. The most recent example of this, our Peace project and gallery show, grew from regularly voiced interest in Peace, both from their personal histories, and their desire for a better world.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We envision systemic change emerging from DAVA in two distinct ways. First, the creative opportunities offered here are designed to support young people in imagining and creating better social systems. Second, DAVA is involved in the national movement known as Creative Youth Development—offering a ramp up to college and careers to through engagement in the arts. We participate in this movement through advocacy and research.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

At DAVA, the arts teach creativity and self-efficacy. We see our students making those transitions between art processes and constructive ways to build a better future. DAVA students are immersed in creative problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork as they learn to express their unique voice and ideas. Kids bring their own perspectives into each project, bring their creative visions to life, and discover their own strengths.

Leadership Story

Learning from youth is a difficult arena for many adults and came late in my own career in the arts. I have to confess that DAVA kids knocked me right into a new dimension. I was fascinated by the resilient heart of middle school culture and the creative potential of an emergent community resource. I am consistently moved by the dynamic quality of youth production because there is always something raw and new being revealed. And along with that comes responsibility to do the best you can for each young person and the potential they represent.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

DAVA - 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award; Aurora Chamber of Commerce Award for Excellence in the Arts; City of Aurora ACE Award for Civic Excellence; DAVA Youth - Colorado Scholastic Art Awards: 2016 Golden Key Awards, and one Silver Medal for Film and Animation this March.

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1 comment

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Photo of Leanne McEvoy

Love your organization.  Keep up the great work!