Marcella Monk Flake, executive director of the Monk Youth Jazz & STEAM Collective. Abiba Biao Photos.
The lyrics floated over the audience, carried on the most certain of small, still-growing voices. Wait a minute, bring it back! Wait a minute, bring it back! belted pint-sized performers Penelope Stewart, Rielynn Johnson, and Laila Hughley. As they formed a half-moon around the microphone, the sound filled the room, making it into every nook and cranny that it could find.
Dozens packed the renovated Trowbridge Environmental Center on a recent Sunday afternoon, listening intently as song, instrumental music, prepared remarks and the steady beat of clapping hands filled the room for close to three hours. The event marked the grand opening for the Monk Youth Jazz & STEAM Collective, which is working with the city to provide art, music, and educational STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming at the center four days a week.
Prior to this month, the Collective did not have a permanent home. Now, its programming at the center includes story time and podcasting on Mondays; sculpting on Wednesdays; and dance and gospel on Fridays. More information is available at the bottom of this article and on the Collective’s social media page.
“Please give yourselves a round of applause for being here,” said Marcella Monk Flake, a singer and former New Haven Public Schools educator who is now the executive director of Monk Youth Jazz and STEAM Collective. “Let’s do this thing.”
Penelope Stewart, Rielynn Johnson, and Laila Hughley. Abiba Biao Photos.
The center’s transformation, one of eight such conversions across the city, has been months in the making. Earlier this year, Mayor Justin Elicker and members of the city’s Youth and Recreation Department (YARD) announced that they would be turning underused park buildings across the city into youth centers.
The other seven centers include the West Rock Nature Center, Coogan Pavilion, Barnard Nature Center, East Rock Ranger Station, Goffe Street Park Community Building, Atwater Senior Center, and the Andrew Salperto Skating Rink in the city's East Shore neighborhood.
Trowbridge, which sits in College Woods on the Orange Street side of East Rock Park, was a perfect candidate: it was built and opened decades ago, but had since fallen into disrepair. A sad porta potty has sat wistfully outside the shuttered building for years.
Now, fresh coats of bright paint cover the walls, welcoming visitors inside. For Monk Flake, who has looked for a permanent home for Monk Youth Jazz’ programming for years, it is a dream realized. At the opening, she praised Elicker and city officials for both rehabbing the space and opening it to the collective, which provides music, arts, and academic education for youth. Currently, she runs programming with her husband, the musician Dudley Flake, and a number of fellow educators, musicians, parents, and Collective alumni.
Since 2011, Monk Youth Jazz & STEAM Collective has jumped around, finding temporary space in school buildings and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, online. The Trowbridge Environmental Center marks the first time it has had a reliable home. Monk Flake described moving into the space as an act of serendipity.
Elicker: A bigger space? Abiba Biao Photos.
“There was an open house [at the Environmental Center] a few weeks ago and I shared [with Mayor Justin Elicker] the fact that I needed a place,” she recalled Sunday with a smile. “‘You know we have all these kids. I can't do this work here and there. Come on Justin, I need a place!’”
Elicker also spoke before performances started. Looking to the remaining seven environmental centers that have yet to be reopened, he said that these initiatives are designed to promote community togetherness and empower youth through recreational and educational activities.
“We particularly emphasize programs that work on family and community and youth and we see a lot of young people around here,” Elicker said. Jokingly, he added that there was already one small problem with the setup: Monk Flake might need a bigger space for her students. The room responded in laughter and applause.
As musical performances filled the space, attendees got a firsthand look at the kind of work Monk Youth Jazz & STEAM Collective will be doing on a weekly basis. After performing “When Jesus Says Yes,” students Penelope Stewart, Rielynn Johnson, and Laila Hughley all shared their excitement for singing.
“Well, it just makes me feel happy sometimes. Like when I'm sad. I just sing and I feel better,” said Penelope, a student at Worthington Hooker School.
“Last year we learned this really fun game where there are characters that teach you about like, [the] exclamation point, and then there's the question mark,” Laila said, referring to Dr. Beryl Irene Bailey’s game of “Pingo.” During the year, she is also a student at Worthington Hooker School.
Rielynn, a fourth grader at Davis Street Arts and Academics School, first got into singing at church and said that it makes her “feel like I’m truly me.”
Performer Naima Jahad, an eighth grader at Mauro Sheridan. Abiba Biao Photos.
Just moments later, Naima Jahad kept that energy going with Whitney Houston's “Greatest Love of All.”Naima, an eighth grader at Mauro Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School, said she was nervous performing in front of a large crowd. It didn’t show as she flowed into “The Greatest Love of All,” drawing a thunderous round of applause and at least one call of “Come on now!” from Monk Flake.
After performing, Naima said she first came into Monk Youth Jazz’ program in the summer of 2017, where the collective would hold small performances. Monk Flake nurtured her passion for singing: she noticed Naima’s“good voice” and pushed her out of her comfort zone, Naima said. She added that singing helped boost her confidence and encouraged her to be in front of people and introduce herself to others.
“I kind of take, like, what they have, but maybe change it up so I can feel more comfortable with it,” she said.
Naima added that her growth as a singer took two years, during which she built confidence by singing to her cousins and family members. While performing is still sometimes intimidating for her, she finds waysto make music her own by respecting her boundaries and having a healthy medium between not too many high notes and not too many low notes.
Now, that same trajectory can be true for dozens of students, who find their voice in the Collective’s new home.
The Monk Center will continue to hold weekly programs at the Trowbridge Environmental Center several days a week. Monday features story time from 4 to 5 p.m. and podcasting from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m.. On Wednesdays , there is a sculpting class for students nine and olderfrom 4 to 6:15 p.m. Friday includes dance from 4 to 5 p.m. and a gospel choir from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m.
Abiba Biao is a graduate of the Arts Council's Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and has stayed on with the Arts Paper as a freelance writer and photographer. She is currently a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).