News & Issues February-March 2017
Education that aims to empower
After fire destroys would-be home, youth program changes plans
By JOHN TOWNES
When a historic former factory and warehouse building on Hudson’s waterfront was formally donated to the local youth education program Kite’s Nest in September, the organization had high hopes for redeveloping it.
In addition to converting the 18,000-square-foot structure and 1.5-acre property at 59 North Front St. into a home for its own activities, Kite’s Nest envisioned sharing the facility with other local groups as a multifaceted community center.
But the grand plans literally went up in smoke Jan. 18, when the structure was destroyed in a late-night fire of unknown origin. Damage was so extensive that the entire building wound up being demolished.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Kaya Weidman, the co-founder and executive director of Kite’s Nest, which was established in 2013. “We loved that building. It would have been a great site for our organization, and a valuable resource for the community. We saw it as belonging to Hudson.”
Despite the loss, though, Weidman stressed that Kite’s Nest and its supporters are determined to move forward with their plans for the property
“We lost that building, but the soul of this project is still very much alive,” she said. “We’re going to rebuild and carry our vision into a new structure there.”
The property was originally the Hudson River Knitting Mills and more recently was known as Riverloft. It was donated to Kite’s Nest by Parachute Holdings LLC, a group headed by Robert Kalin, the founder of the online commerce site Etsy.
Kalin, who is no longer connected with Etsy, lives across the river in Catskill and has been active in mill redevelopment and related entrepreneurial activities there. Kalin also provided startup funding for Kite’s Nest.
The vacant Riverloft building required extensive work. Kite’s Nest had cleaned it out, but Weidman said the renovation project was still in very preliminary planning stages when the fire broke out. The group had intended to spend the next year developing architectural designs and other plans.
“We were in the early phase of developing a vision and physical plan for its use as a shared community space,” Weidman said. “We were discussing the possibilities with supporters, residents of the neighborhood and other organizations to guide the design and uses of the building.”
She said the group now will change course to focus on construction of a new building, with the goal of developing a basic plan for the new structure this year.
The property includes land on both sides of North Front Street. It is home to a community garden that Kite’s Nest sponsors in conjunction with other organizations, and which 27 families use. The garden will continue, and the property will be used for other outdoor activities while plans for the new building are worked out, Weidman said.
Critical thinking, social mission
Kite’s Nest describes itself as “a center for liberatory education.” In a mission statement on its Web site, the group says it aims to provide “innovative classes and programs that engage children and teenagers in creative expression and critical inquiry.”
The center places a strong emphasis on community engagement, including building local movements for goals such as social and economic justice, food security, environmental sustainability and community wellness.
Kite’s Nest is designed to complement the programs of other schools.
“We’re not aiming to be a full private school,” Weidman said. “We’re a niche that offers additional opportunities for young people to learn and become involved in their community.”
Some of its programs are offered in after-school hours, but others are scheduled during the school day as enrichment programs for children who are home-schooled – and for those who are not in traditional schools for other reasons. The center also runs two weeklong programs during school vacation weeks as well as a summer camp.
Kite’s Nest currently operates from a space in Basilica Hudson, an arts center in another former industrial structure on South Front Street. It is an independent nonprofit organization, drawing funding from a combination of foundation grants, United Way contributions, course fees and individual contributions.
“We have a group of sustaining supporters who contribute amounts ranging from $5 to $1,000 a month or more,” Weidman said.
Kite’s Nest was founded by a core of four people who shared the goal of offering alternative educational programs in Hudson. Weidman noted that several of the organizers previously worked at WGXC, a local nonprofit community radio station.
“We believed there was a need to provide young people with alternative learning experiences that would be inspiring, joyful and meaningful,” Weidman said.
They started planning in 2012 and were able to launch the program the next year after receiving a contribution of seed money from Kalin.
The center currently has a staff of four. In addition, it contracts with a network of instructors in various fields and partners with other groups to lead programs. It also hires older teenagers for part-time positions.
Education meets social change
The “liberatory education” approach practiced at Kite’s Nest is a theory of instruction that encourages students to think critically about how they relate to society and examine issues that affect them and the larger community. The goal is to encourage and empower students.
“It’s an intersection between education and social change, with the purpose of building a better world,” Weidman said. “We provide a space where young people can explore ideas and issues that affect them, and support and inspire them to make a positive difference now and as adults.”
The center’s programs are for young people from ages 6 to 17. It emphasizes experiential learning through class themes and projects that help students to discover and nurture diverse interests and talents. It also focuses on the process of education, encouraging students to pursue lifelong learning.
Classes take a multidisciplinary approach and focus on developing a variety of skills. Instructors adjust the activities based on what students are interested in pursuing.
In the current term, for example, students in one course are investigating local histories of labor, migration and urban change through research, archeological explorations, interviews, oral histories, writing and reading. In another course, students are learning hands-on mechanics, math, design and engineering by working with machines, small motors and electronics.
Past workshops have explored urban planning, creative writing, journalism, textile arts, cartography, traditional wooden boat building, potion making, culinary artistry and other topics.
The center’s special programs have included waterfront trips and boating programs in partnership with the Hudson Sloop Club. (That organization had stored boats in the Riverloft building that were destroyed in the fire.)
Kite’s Nest also runs The Alimentary Kitchen, where workshops integrate nutrition, herbalism, food preparation, processing and culinary traditions. The facility also provides a certified commercial kitchen for community dinners and special events.
And Kite’s Nest partners with the Staley B. Keith Social Justice Center to sponsor the Social Justice Leadership Academy, a five-week intensive program at which teenagers explore their identities, analyze social systems and explore and develop skills in community organizing, creative expression and other methods of fostering social change.
Tailored to local issues
Weidman said although its basic approach can be applied in many communities, Kite’s Nest addresses issues that are especially important in Hudson.
“The principles and values and pedagogy could be applied anywhere, but the details are also a response to this specific place,” she explained.
She cited the city’s issues with poverty and gentrification – and the effects these have on housing, economic opportunity and community cohesion.
“Hudson has been going through many changes around the local economy and issues of equity,” Weidman said. “Young people feel a lack of opportunity. Meanwhile, people are moving to Hudson who have a significant amount of money.
“That dissonance raises the need for young people to be more valued -- and for their concerns to be heard and respected,” she continued. “They are going to be the change makers, and it’s important for them to be involved in the community.”
Weidman said engagement with all segments of the community is one of the center’s core principles. So Kite’s Nest collaborates with other organizations, schools and other institutions that affect young people.
“We’re one part of a larger network, with a distinct role,” she said.
Although there are fees for its programs, Kite’s Nest offers sliding-scale payment options and scholarships to make its offerings financially accessible to everyone.
“We don’t turn away anyone for lack of funds,” Weidman said. “We have students from the full range of economic and social backgrounds. Diversity is an important aspect of our values.”
Although its purpose is serious, Weidman emphasized that the lighter side of Kite’s Nest is equally vital.
“It’s a fun place,” Weidman said. “Kids come by choice because they are respected and enjoy what they do here. In fact, our name is almost becoming a local adjective. People will describe something that’s a little bit offbeat and fun as being ‘Kitey.’”
She said updates on the progress of its building project will be posted on its Facebook page (kitesnest.hudson) and Web site (kitesnest.org).
“We encourage people to stay in touch with us, and give us their input and support as we move forward,” she said. “We’re going to need all of the help we can get.”