A creative twist on teen mentorship programs
Nighthawks Teen Leadership Program provides skills training to young people from underserved communities through the lens of stewarding a historic site like the Edward Hopper House.
Pay a visit to the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center in Nyack, New York, on a Friday afternoon between November and June, and you’re likely to find an eclectic group of middle and high school students inside the house or its offices. They might be poring over SAT vocabulary, taking a yoga class focused on mindfulness, or studying the works of Edward Hopper, one of the most acclaimed American painters. Whatever it is, it’s not how you’d expect most teenagers to spend an afternoon at the end of a long school week.
Then again, these aren’t your average teenagers. These are members of the Nighthawks Teen Leadership Program, which earned the Hopper House Museum the 2018 Trustees Emeritus Award for Historic Sites Stewardship from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in November.
Equal parts professional development, educational programming, and social gathering, the Nighthawks program seeks to mentor teens from underserved communities through the lens of stewarding a historic site like the Hopper House, a member of the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program. During weekly 90-minute training sessions, students learn to lead weekend tours of the house (Hopper’s childhood home) and arts-and-crafts workshops open to the public, sharpening their leadership and public speaking skills. In the process, they become experts on all things Hopper.
“You could ask one of our students to walk into a gallery of various paintings with only one obscure Hopper, and they’d know exactly which one it was right away,” says Jennifer Patton, executive director of the center. “They know the architectural styles of each addition of the house, when they were built, why they were built, how many generations lived there, and who restored it. There’s nothing they don’t know.”
Patton previously worked at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York, where she had run its Junior Docent Program. Created in the 1990s, the Junior Docent Program received a Coming Up Taller Award from the currently-defunct President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities for its effective blend of mentorship, education, and camaraderie.
When Patton arrived at the Hopper House in early 2016, she immediately saw the potential for a similar program that could be even more effective than the Hudson River Museum’s due to the house’s narrower focus. Working alongside Aisha Yusuf, a Junior Docent during Patton’s tenure at the Hudson River Museum, the Nighthawks program was born. The name comes from Hopper’s most famous painting, which depicts four people in a diner late at night.
But creating a program and finding teens willing to participate are two very different things. Patton recalls the first time they entered a Nyack school in the fall of 2016 to introduce students to the fledgling program, presenting to a room full of 9th graders. “Even though we knew it was interesting to some kids, nobody signed up. They all just left the auditorium and walked away.”
Undeterred, Patton and Yusuf approached guidance counselors and other community organizations, such as Nyack Center and the public library. They posted flyers and spoke with kids during lunch periods. By October they had secured their first group of three students, growing to 10 total over the following month before the first Nighthawks meeting.
Jack Blanchette was a sophomore at the time when he saw a flyer for the Nighthawks. “I had known there was an Edward Hopper house museum in Nyack, but I couldn’t tell you who he was,” he says. “I couldn’t really say I’d even been in the building. It was one of those things where I just saw something and decided to go for it.” Blanchette was one of the first Nighthawks, and now plans to pursue an art history major in college, having gained a broader perspective of the world and a trove of art knowledge.
Now in its third year, the program includes around 25 teens from Nyack and four other nearby school districts. Students start out earning only community service hours, but are eventually placed on payroll as they gain experience. It’s all funded through a combination of foundation grants and private donors; the Westchester Community Foundation has provided $26,000 over the program’s first two years, and a fundraiser last October brought in $30,000 more.
“To make art is one thing, but to be able to convey it to a community and get people excited is kind of perfect. I’m very lucky to be doing this kind of work.” — Artist Nina Berlingeri
The ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Nyack and its surrounding area played a major role in shaping Patton and Yusuf’s vision for the program. Subsidized housing units can be found blocks away from million-dollar mansions along the Hudson River. Vibrant African American, Latino, Asian American, and Middle Eastern communities all call the region home. As such, building a group of motivated students from a similarly wide range of backgrounds and life experiences became a priority, especially considering the importance of the program’s social component. Students form friendships across school districts and cultural lines, learning, studying, and traveling to museums together.
It’s one of Blanchette’s favorite parts of being a Nighthawk. “I love coming here every Friday. Not only do we get to go on trips and do stuff, we also get to hang out and see friends from other schools that we normally don’t get to see around,” he says.
Daphne Bon echoes that sentiment. Another member of the original 10 Nighthawks, Daphne was only a 7th grader when she joined. Though Nighthawks are generally high schoolers, her maturity and enthusiasm for interacting with new people convinced program leaders to make an exception.
“You just meet a lot of cool people you wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she says. “With the different exhibitions that come into the Hopper House, we get to meet a lot of the artists who are showing. That’s really cool, not only to see the art that they’ve made, but also listen to them talk about the process of how they made it.”
Patton says, “I’m always so impressed at how incredibly open teenagers are to each other. They are so much more open than I was at their age. It’s really fun to watch.”
Yusuf eventually departed for graduate school, but not before training her replacement as Nighthawks program manager, artist Nina Berlingeri. Berlingeri appreciates the value of teens developing and learning about Hopper in the same house where the artist himself spent those formative years. “It’s a chance for [the students] to resonate with history, understand their connection to it, and understand the relevance of preserving a historical space,” she says. “They’re really excited to feel like part of the Hopper House, and they completely are … they’re almost the most appropriate people to speak on Hopper, just having that experiential connection.
“To make art is one thing, but to be able to convey it to a community and get people excited is kind of perfect. I’m very lucky to be doing this kind of work.”
The Nighthawks recently enjoyed their holiday party, which they planned and conducted themselves. Berlingeri has planned activities through January, including a student-led panel discussion about different topics related to historic preservation inspired by her time at the National Trust’s PastForward conference in November. She’s excited to hear how the group tackles complex issues related to culture, history, and public spaces, as a litmus test for future generations of preservationists’ perspectives.
And as for Patton, the joy of seeing so many talented young people engaging with Hopper and the place he grew up in has made it all more than worth it. “When I first came [to Nyack] and talked to young people about Edward Hopper, none of them knew who he was and that he lived here,” she says. “I was sort of horrified because I realized that his legacy had not been retained and communicated. And I knew that if they did, they would love him, because he’s so accessible and a hometown hero.
“They needed to know who he is, and now they will.”