Building Access to the Arts

A story of bringing theater and arts education to underserved communities.

Published February 23rd, 2024

            On a summer night in 2023, hundreds of Syracuse residents settled into the seats of Fowler High School’s auditorium for the debut of BLAAC’s production of The Color Purple. For Director and Producer Blondean Young, the long-anticipated opening felt like a homecoming: more than a decade before, Blondean had been a student at Fowler and performed on that stage. In the subsequent years she attended Onondaga Community College, earned her bachelor’s in fine arts at Syracuse University, and lived in both New York City and Los Angeles where she worked as an actor.

More than 1,200 came out to see BLAAC’s production of The Color Purple during its eight night run. For many, it was their first time experiencing theater.

In 2017, she returned to Syracuse with a mission. “My goal throughout this process was to bring Black people and people of color to theater. I wanted to make theater affordable, and to make sure that people were able to come see the play,” explains Blondean. “I want to give them that opportunity to put their work on stage.”

She decided she would form a production company called BLAAC, or “Black Latino Asian Artist Coalition” to start creating opportunities and building a community around this work. Blondean quickly realized she needed funding, but has no experience raising funds. A friend recommended she apply to Gifford for a “What If…” Mini Grant – a program designed to help City of Syracuse residents foster growth in neighborhoods, strengthen their capacity, and improve the wellbeing of their community.

Photo Credit: Tania Ortiz,

BLAAC’s School of the Arts, their latest initiative, involves providing arts programming for youth ages 8 – 15.

“It was a great introduction into the grant writing process,” says Blondean, “and it was the first grant I ever applied for and was very accessible and self-explanatory.” Throughout the orientation process and while crafting the application, “What If…” participants receive guidance and support from Gifford staff around how to plan budgets, write project narratives, and collaborate with a fiscal sponsor, among other lessons.

Once completed, “What If…” grant proposals are evaluated by a committee of community members who have gone through the grant process themselves, known as the Resident Review Committee.

Blondean’s proposal was ultimately accepted, and while the funding was instrumental in facilitating the production of The Color Purple, the experience she gained through the process positioned her to identify and pursue additional grant opportunities. Following her “What If…” award, Blondean went on to successfully apply for funding through CNY Arts as well as from the Central New York Community Foundation.

Blondean has also volunteered to sit on the Resident Review Committee herself, an opportunity that she says has also given her a new lens for understanding project management while growing her appreciation for her community. “I really enjoy being a part of the process because a lot of people in the community are doing great things, and being a part of the board that helps get their projects off the ground – it feels good,” she says. “There are so many good people in the world who want to do good things, and it shows in the applications we receive.”

BLAAC’s 2023 production of The Color Purple ultimately ran for eight nights with a combined audience of more than 1,200 people. “I had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen a play or musical,’ and they were well into their sixties,” says Blondean. For many of the actors, it was their first time participating in a play or musical as well. In addition to casting and content practices that authentically reflect the diversity of Syracuse’s population, she has helped keep accessibility front and center in her work by planning events along bus lines and by giving out a percentage of tickets for free.

Shortly after The Color Purple finished its last performance, BLAAC had already begun their next project – this time focusing on providing arts education to youth through a program known as the BLAAC School for the Arts. “We do one on one and group classes,” says Blondean. “Last semester we had ages 11 – 17 and this semester we are having 8 – 15.” Participants are exposed to production methods as well as acting, singing, dancing, etc. and the program has already attracted coverage from, and WSYR’s Bridge St.

“I want people to see an audition and know that they don’t even need experience because I want to give everyone the opportunity to just try,” says Blondean. “If you are interested, I want to introduce the arts to you because I believe that the arts can actually save lives.”

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