In this 15th annual edition of the Providence Phoenix's Best issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work — local heroes who often labor behind the scenes, but are changing their communities for the better. Whatever neighborhoods we live in, we are all in their debt.
DEDICATED Kugler has transformed AS220 Youth.
OPENING THE DOOR TO THE FUTURE
There is a wall of pictures above Anne Kugler's desk in her tiny office at arts organization AS220's youth studio.
They are black faces, brown faces. Mostly young men. Some represent stories of redemption — kids pulled back from the brink. Some are serving 20-year prison sentences.
"I don't want to sugarcoat it," says Kugler, 42. "It's a totally 50/50 kind of thing."
Standing on the brink with these kids — exhilaration on one side, heartbreak on the other — is hard work. But Kugler, who has run marathons, goes at it with a dedication and vision that astounds those who work alongside her.
Kugler is AS220's youth director, in charge of an arts program spread across three sites: the organization's youth studio on Empire Street in downtown Providence; the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP), a Providence middle school for students who have repeated at least one grade; and the Rhode Island Training School, the state's juvenile detention facility.
She didn't start the program. It had been around about a decade when she took over three-and-a-half years ago. But it was struggling, at the time, to expand its reach and get a handle on the kids' many needs.
"She came at a really delicate point," says Jeremy Radtke, the assistant director. "There was a lot of spinning of the wheels going on."
Kugler brought unique experience to the job. A native of New Bedford, Massachusetts and graduate of Brown University, Kugler went to Bard College in New York to get an MFA in painting.
At the time, she says, she had a rather self-centered world view. But working with the mentally ill and homeless in New York, "realizing I had no information that was helpful to them at all," Kugler recast her life.
She learned hard lessons about what people need, about what works. And when the AS220 job opened up — drawing on her arts and social services backgrounds — she took it with some definite ideas for change.
Offering a kid a few art classes wouldn't do, she said. The program had to engage the whole person, for four and five years at a time, if it was to make a real impact.
Kids, then, would become long-term "members." If they started a project in the Training School, they could pick it up at AS220, with the same instructors, after their release.
And rather than split the arts and social services work among various AS220 staffers, Kugler made each staffer accountable for the full range of needs for a set number of kids.
That way, a young person fresh out the Training School could depend on one, go-to adult, rather than navigate relationships with several. The quality of services, Radtke says, took off.
There were other management triumphs, too — massaging an always tricky relationship with the Department of Children, Youth & Families, doubling the number of youth involved to 500, growing the budget some 85 percent.