“I want to say thank you for opening my eyes to new things and now, thanks to you, I love writing, drawing, and most of all, I love art. I love all the projects you bring every Wednesday, even though I face some challenges. Love, Kynnedi” (6th grade)
One might suppose that launching a nonprofit smack at the beginning of the COVID pandemic would be a race with the wind. Still, Ebony Morman – founder of Butterfly Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina – seems to have kept up. She and I chatted one afternoon so that I could learn more about her connection with The Pollination Project and the mission of her art enrichment program, Art for All.
A moment in our conversation struck me. After I inquired about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Ebony had her community’s best interest at heart. Careful not to perpetuate the problem by amplifying an already over-stigmatized narrative – the grace and care in her response illuminated how stigmas disempower through entrapment. “We can’t shake it,” she said. Yet, it’s those stigmas Ebony is shaking—by helping underserved youth rewrite their stories, literally and figuratively.
Ebony discovered herself as an artist at nine years old. “The Center,” as she and others called it, was an afterschool facility where she spent much of her adolescence and a place she credits for some of the best memories of her life – possibly having saved it. Kids could dance, jump rope, and creatively express themselves. Now with her organization, she aspires to build a similar oasis for youth in need to access equitable resources for creativity and empower them to become honorable contributors to society. Teens can discover the artist within and acknowledge art as a catalyst that can lead them down once inconceivable roads.
Ebony’s academic and professional background as a writer, and her experience as an educator in under-resourced middle schools, informed her mentoring abilities. She said recognizing “how unsafe children sometimes feel” validated her vision of art-enrichment programs as a solution.
The statistics show that over eleven million children in the US are without adult supervision after school, ¹ contributing to an increase in juvenile crime and boredom being another factor.² Ebony’s philosophy is that designing programs for the pivotal and impressionable years of middle grades can reduce teenage crime by limiting negative possibilities in the gap time after school. Instead, it redirects them to a safe place they look forward to and enjoy for creative productivity and personal growth. She also noted that many kids with behavioral issues (which often arise during those years) are very creative but get in trouble for ill-timed expressions at school. Butterfly Academy intends to facilitate that expression to flourish in the right environment.
In 2020, Ebony finished her last school year in a traditional classroom and dedicated herself full-time to Butterfly Academy. Despite the pandemic and having to revamp years of planning, she persevered and started by serving youth online. Currently, Butterfly Academy assists transient and underserved youth with programming through partnerships with Gracious Hands Transitional Housing and Greater Enrichment Program (6th-grade participants).
Shared values prompted Ebony to apply for a grant with The Pollination Project. More funding allows Butterfly Academy to expand its offerings and not have to work with minimal resources. She expressed immense gratitude and appreciation for an outside entity recognizing the purpose of the work as important and worthwhile. “Receiving a grant has been instrumental… it awarded us the opportunity to continue our mission and vision,” Ebony said. The grant enabled purchasing art materials to supply handcrafted kits tailored to a specific art of interest, covering various mediums: drawing, painting, poetry, writing, sketching.
Art for All holds mini-workshops for teens to guide them into independent practice. They can present their work and collect feedback from peers. Sharing their process makes life as an artist a reality. Through community support and the appreciation of other artists’ work, they learn to respect one another. The direct support from their mentors throughout the process moves them beyond doubts and defeat into confidence and faith. “Art and mentorship together create the transformation,” Ebony said. Art challenges teens to grow into better versions of themselves and not give up. Their work improves with time, so the art reflects and confirms their evolution. The investment in their artistic process, such as mulling over color selection or how things turn out, transfers over into other areas of their lives. “The reward is seeing them channel their challenges into something good. That’s why I do the work I do,” she said.
Butterfly Academy remains flexible in its strategy but steadfast in its vision to extend mentorship into high school and beyond. Ebony emphasizes the goal to stay manageable—to preserve the integrity of the high-touch experience. Proving the model’s efficacy will allow her to expand by taking the program back home to impact the South Side of Chicago. Ebony’s dream is to establish the physical location, and she awaits the day when children run through the door for a big hug and jump right into being creative. Until then, she’ll keep on racing. As she said, “This work is one of the reasons I was put on this Earth.”
- Afterschool Alliance, America After 3pm: Afterschool Programs in Demand (Afterschool Alliance, 2014).
- Susan Manheimer and Joshua Spaulding, “After School: The Prime Time for Juvenile Crime—Partnering with After-School Programs to Reduce Crime, Victimization, and Risky Behaviors Among Youth,” Police Chief Online, August 5, 2020.