Katherine Schmidt, ’12, uses the creative arts to explore themes of identity and empower children and youth in underserved communities.

As an American studies major and women, gender, and sexuality studies minor, Schmidt spent many classroom hours examining how race, class, gender, and sexual orientation affect complex social issues. Through her community work in the arts, Schmidt saw firsthand how they also affect individual children. 

Schmidt volunteered as a sophomore at a transitional-housing shelter for women and children to fulfill the community-based learning requirement for Women, Homelessness, and Dependency, a course taught by political scientist Andrea Simpson.

“I brought in art projects to do with the children in the evenings while the mothers took classes or met with social workers,” Schmidt said. “I’ve always been drawn to creative expression. It’s exciting for me to involve young people in projects where they can express themselves creatively.”

Schmidt, who took several fine arts classes at University of Richmond, soon realized how children’s art can reflect their identities and what is going on in their lives.

She studied the connection between creative expression and issues of identity and agency more fully during her junior year when she served as the resident assistant for, and participant in, the Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course Children and Mental Health, taught by political science professor Rick Mayes and psychology professor Catherine Bagwell.   

“The most satisfying part of being in the SSIR program is building intentional communities with other students who feel passionate about the same issues,” Schmidt said.

For the CBL component of the SSIR course, Schmidt volunteered during the fall semester with the nonprofit ART 180 at an under-resourced Richmond public middle school through Build It, a neighborhood-based civic-engagement initiative coordinated by the University’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).

“ART 180 creates and provides art-related programs for young people living in challenging circumstances, encouraging personal and community change through self-expression,” according to the organization’s website.

“When I read that description,” Schmidt said, “I realized this could not be more perfect for what I’m interested in.

“For the first time, I was consistently working with the same group of young people. I was able to build relationships with them and watch as they learned to express themselves and take ownership of their creative process.

“I loved my experience so much that I interned with ART 180 in the spring, assisting the artists with programs and providing office and site support.”

Schmidt amplified her experience with ART 180 during summer 2011 when the CCE awarded her a Burhans Civic Fellowship to complete an academically based 400-hour internship with the organization.

“I was able to make a lot of connections with my American studies concentration in agency and identity,” Schmidt said. “An 11-year-old black boy made a portrait of himself as a white woman fashion designer. His project reflected issues of gender identity and colorism.

“ART 180 gave him the space and security to create this kind of project. Through art projects, kids can let their voices be heard, build self-confidence, and work for change.

“Being in a work environment like ART 180 made me realize I could live a life I was passionate about after college,” Schmidt said. “It made me that much more determined to be an agent for social change.”

And now she’s doing just that.

Today Schmidt began working as program coordinator of civic engagement and social justice at the New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York City.  

“My role at Eugene Lang will connect me with issues of identity and community in my professional life,” Schmidt said. “I couldn't be happier to have found meaningful work that will build on the experiences that shaped me at Richmond.”  

Photograph: Katherine Schmidt at an outdoor ART 180 exhibition