When Shawn Burnett was in middle school, he wanted to become a sneaker designer. Born and raised in Baltimore, he experimented with cartoons, fashion design, dance and culinary arts.
“It wasn’t about creating the piece of art that interested me,” Burnett says. “It was the ability to express myself in whatever mood I was in. It enabled me to express myself differently and explore a different world.”
Art gave him freedom from his neighborhood, he says. It allowed him to travel to New York to see art museums, fashion shows and music videos. He even had the opportunity to be in newspapers and television commercials.
“I was getting a chance to do different things that my friends, some of whom never left the neighborhood, weren’t experiencing,” Burnett says. “Art has numerous benefits, mostly qualitative benefits that can’t be measured. It made me feel better about myself as a person.”
After Burnett teamed up with the nonprofit Fitness Fun & Games to host a fashion exhibition in Baltimore, people began asking Burnett where they could find workshops for young people who wanted to draw, dance or play the drums. He also noticed that schools were no longer offering art courses.
Burnett completely switched career paths, leaving nursing school to pursue a degree in nonprofit leadership and political science from Coppin State University, and started Walks of ART in 2011. The goal of the organization is to have a positive impact on the cognitive development, emotional health and social lives of underserved youth in Baltimore City through arts education, recreation and mentoring.
“If you participate in art-making, you have better test scores, you behave better, you have interpersonal skills because you expand the circle of people you meet, and your self-esteem goes up because you’re seeing things in a different light,” Burnett says.
Walks of ART holds art-based workshops up to three times a week in Southern Park Heights, the community where his grandmother and grandfather still live. The organization has many partners, including the Black Male Identity Project, Sisters Saving the City and the Center for Urban Families.
“There are large populations of youth in Baltimore City who have tremendous interests, gifts or talents in the arts, but lack the avenues to pursue them,” Burnett says.
He calls Walks of ART a safe haven for kids.
“I purposefully choose instructors who come from similar backgrounds,” Burnett says. “They have similar home histories. School may have been the only place they had a decent meal. So it’s more than dealing with art, there’s a mentoring aspect too.”
Although Burnett didn’t end up becoming a shoe designer, he says he hopes his fellowship will help him inspire Baltimore’s youth and transform a troubled community through the power of art.
“I think I’m showing everyone that you don’t have to put on a suit and tie to affect change and be taken seriously,” he says.