The following is a guest post by Sharayna Christmas, Executive Director of Muse 360 Arts.
Sharayna has been dancing for over 25 years. Her ballet training began at the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) at the age of three. At 16, she participated in the Marie Brook Pan Caribbean Dance Company to perform in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Sharayna accredits her passion for the community to her mother who has been a community activist in New York and New Jersey for over 35 years. In 1998, Christmas moved to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University where she received her B.S. in Finance.
Being a 22-year-old black woman venturing to start my own non-profit was a very unlikely path. I had to exercise much faith to prepare to leave a job at one of the top financial firms in the country and instead dedicate my life to Baltimore's youth.
My upbringing had a lot to do with the path that I chose. My mother, a fearless and passionate woman, raised us to always stay committed to the things that we set out to do. She started me at the age of three in ballet classes at the Dance Theater of Harlem, and I went on to study until I graduated from high school. As a youth, I felt like I had school every day of the week because I went to ballet on Saturdays and church on Sundays.
I always say that I did not choose this path because I believe it is what I am destined to do. Studying classical ballet in Harlem was an unlikely combination. In any case, my mother was committed to exposing my brother and me to a world beyond our front door. This world encompassed a spirit of activism, the arts, history, and all kinds leaders that looked like me.
After graduating from college, I really wanted to plant my seed in Baltimore. I searched for a church home in the true customary fashion, by reflecting on my upbringing. I found myself experiencing for the first time a ‘mega church.’ Although this was the complete opposite of my church back home (with only 150 members), I was easily swept in and inspired. My inspiration was soon crushed by the celebrity this ‘mega church’ presented. It became more about the money I was giving and less about the on the ground work in a community I could contribute to.
I started to become conflicted spiritually. I saw so many resources in Baltimore city only focused on a small percentage of the population, leaving the black community disproportionately under-educated, under-engaged and under-supported. So you have to ask yourself, what does a future look like for our children? After attending this church for a little over two years, I felt like I needed to step away to begin to explore a more genuine connection personally and spiritually. Baltimore is a city that has one of the highest number of churches per capita, so it doesn’t make sense that there is disconnect between church and the surrounding community
Being a creative entrepreneur that has been living and serving Baltimore City for almost 20 years now, it becomes increasingly hard to witness a population go unnoticed. Communities are crying out for opportunities to create and sustain a livelihood so that they can contribute positively to the world they live in.
I am a self-starter and a dreamer motivated by my own experiences in Baltimore and beyond. So here I was, a 22-year-old recent college grad being working full time in the financial for-profit world. I was overwhelmed with a city that is blatantly segregated, under educated, and over looked. Now 14-years later, I have been fearless in audaciously creating opportunities through a non-profit I founded, Muse 360 Arts.
Muse 360 Arts is an organization that is committed to artistic excellence— In the belief that learning is centered in the process of inquiry, self-discovery, and creative expression, we offer our youth the environment and tools they need to take risks, think critically, and work creatively within and across disciplines.
Muse 360 Arts is committed to civic engagement— a commitment to the creative evolution of our communities based on history. We focus on engaging youth in the process of becoming the inventive, self-disciplined, contributing citizens upon whom our world depends.
Muse 360 Arts is committed to creative entrepreneurship— we teach each student the necessary professional skills to transform aspirations and values into a creative practice that will serve as the foundation for a rewarding career. Our mission to develop youth creatively has expanded but at the heart of these experiences is LOVE & HOPE. This is the thread that holds creates that spiritual connection to the work and helps people see beyond their circumstances.
Muse 360 Arts reaches far beyond developing youth in Baltimore city, we have been able to serve and change the lives of over 500 youth and their families annually through high quality programming that intersects self-awareness and spirituality. It became obvious to me that in creating opportunities, I have to bridge the gap economically and spiritually. I built intentional relationships to push change forward teaching my youth my fee for service model using their creative talents to secure their livelihood with a program called Spark of Genius: Youth Entrepreneur Project. Rayn Fall Dance Studio offers professional dance training to over 100 youth in the city in Ballet, Modern and the allied arts. New Generation Scholars: Youth Leadership Program has taken over 60 young Baltimoreans to study the African Diaspora, arts and culture abroad in eight countries.
These experiences changed the lives of many youth and their families. Making them more aware of their history, legacy and the power that lies within to persevere spiritually and mentally.
The ICJS Entrepreneurs Lunchtime Series (ELS) brings together local entrepreneurial leaders to discuss the role that religion and ethics can play in building healthy communities. In this initiative, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about religion and ethics in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome and lift up this diversity of perspectives.