Students at Westinghouse Academy and other local schools are benefiting from a fairly new initiative that aims to reduce violence through exposure to the arts.

Linda “Imani” Barrett, a Hill District native, founded Legacy Arts Project in 2004. One of their programs is an initiative called Drums Not Guns.

“The investment in students with the arts is so important, and it can change things and motivate them,” said Toni Nadiyah Stowers, director of youth programming for the Legacy Arts Project.

In addition to Westinghouse Academy, Drums Not Guns is taking place at Urban Academy, Arsenal Middle School, Faison Elementary and LAP Saturday Institute.

The program began in fall 2021 with a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. It serves an average of 80 youth per week, according to Erin Perry, executive director of Legacy Arts Project.

“Our programming engages youth with the strengthening of self-identity, building of creative skills and the fostering of a healthy and inclusive environment. We say that ‘knowledge of self is violence prevention,’ and our programming seeks to equip youth with self-awareness and the ability to make sound decisions,” Perry said.

The program is still in its infancy and they are continuing to track the impact on students.

“Many have demonstrated an ability to self-regulate, to face conflict and to make decisions that integrate their cultural learning and enable them to have positive outcomes,” she said.

“When I’m drumming, it feels like I can share my emotion through the drum and it feels fun. It’s very fun because you get to do whatever you want whenever you are drumming,” said Dallas Chatman, 17, a junior at Westinghouse Academy.

For Chatman, catching on to the beats came naturally.

“I like music, and I make music myself,” said Chatman, who dabbles in R&B, gospel and hip-hop.

Chatman also feels a connection to culture. “It helps connect with people around you. You are able to come together, you can see how that other person is feeling, you can see how you’re feeling. It’s fun,” he said.

“This has helped them with expression and expressing themselves outside of the classroom environment,” said Regina Hutson, a teacher at Westinghouse Academy who teaches African American history, women’s studies and anthropology. “I also noticed how they have stepped out of their comfort zones and become more comfortable with each other, which lends itself to a tighter classroom environment.”

Fode Moussa Camara, who is from Guinea in West Africa, has been teaching the students how to play throughout the school year.

“The culture of these drums is very powerful. It is important for children and our people to know their own culture and where they come from,” Camara said. “When people pass on the culture and the traditions, it stays alive.”

Music is a tradition in Camara’s family. He said that when drumming on the djembe, “it takes you to another place — even when you are mad and you are playing on this instrument, it will make those emotions and tensions calm. Sometimes it is a little hard because the students here did not know much about djembe, but the djembe brings people together in harmony.”

Before students began playing, Camara explained this history to them. The djembe drum is part of everyday life in West Africa, used for baby-naming ceremonies, weddings and baptisms.

“This drum is powerful, it heals,” Camara said.

“I have been around the arts and teaching for many years, and I already know from experience how the arts are vital for helping students to develop emotionally and socially,” said Stowers, a retired educator. “When it comes to dealing with trauma, using arts can be part of the healing process.”

Stowers said dance and education are her two heartbeats.

“Dance was my saving grace. When I understood I was a choreographer, I utilized that, and that just changed my other lifestyles,” she said. “In this generation, there are a lot of things that curtail students from being able to socialize in a positive manner. We have violence, we have broken families, social media … we realize the drumming can help as an intervention tool.”

It is a tool to take the frustrations, disappointments and trauma put them into an artistic form.

“Once the students understand the rhythm, it might help them function in a dysfunctional environment.”

The Legacy Arts Project also has programming throughout the summer and is gearing up for Dance Africa in July, a two-day festival.

Shaylah Brown is a TribLive reporter covering art, culture and communities of color. A New Jersey native, she joined the Trib in 2023. When she's not working, Shaylah dives into the worlds of art, wellness and the latest romance novels. She can be reached at sbrown@triblive.com.