There’s just no ignoring that check.
It’s a big one — several feet long and made of cardboard. It’s a space hog. A prop.
But David Bestock was happy to wrangle it into his office, for it represents not just $100,000 from the Washington Women’s Foundation, but validation that the work he and his team at the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA) are doing is making an impact, and getting noticed.
“This is the biggest vote of confidence we’ve had from a foundation in my tenure here,” said Bestock, 39, who became executive director of the nonprofit in 2012. “Plus, the Washington Women’s Foundation is a group of dedicated, high-powered women. Their vote is huge for us.
“Just the fact that they know who we are,” he said, “is a validation.”
The Youngstown Cultural Arts Center — housed in the former Cooper School, a handsome brick building on Delridge Way Southwest — is the place where most of DNDA’s art, nature and neighborhood programs live. There are classrooms, a theater, a dance studio, the Nature Consortium and, on an upper floor, 36 units of artists’ housing, where novelist Karen Finneyfrock and poet Roberto Ascalon once lived.
In addition to its cultural programs, Youngstown hosts race and social-justice workshops and a Restorative Justice Program for Youth, and houses other nonprofits such as ArtsCorp, the Totem Star recording studio; ReelGrrls; The Service Board mentoring program; The West Seattle Tool Library and Twelfth Night Productions.
Some 45,000 people pass through its doors every year.
“The most vibrant place in this building is the hallways,” Bestock said. “People seeing theater productions, going to meetings, taking classes. When all the spaces are in use, you really feel something.”
Off-site, the DNDA owns six other affordable housing properties with 108 units and does environmental restoration at 11 West Seattle parks.
In awarding the money, Washington Women’s Foundation President and CEO Beth McCaw noted the state’s “growing economic inequality” and resulting disparities in education, health care and “creative and cultural expression.” The foundation had refocused its grant-making criteria, and DNDA fit the bill.
“It is a privilege to partner in the refurbishment of Youngstown,” McCaw said, calling it “a critically important community institution.”
This money is a boost not just for the DNDA, but for Bestock, as well. When he took over, the place was $1.7 million in debt for a number of reasons: The financial downturn of 2008 made it difficult to refinance money that had been borrowed to purchase property for housing. There was credit-card debt. And there was money borrowed from a donor that needed to be paid back.
That debt is now down to just $150,000 — a feat Bestock accomplished by renegotiating the debt, aggressively going after government funding and reconnecting with donors and the community.
“He built a lot of trust back up with the community and DNDA,” said Randy Engstrom, director of the city of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and the founding director of the Youngstown Cultural Center. “He reached out to the historical partners at Youngstown and in the Delridge neighborhood, founding staff and residents of properties and offered to bring them into the process of re-imagining the organization.
“And he was humble in his approach,” Engstrom said. “His persistence and his willingness to be honest and live his values meant a lot.”
Bestock knew that he had his work cut out for him.
“When I started, DNDA was the embers of what had been,” Bestock said. “I knew if I came in every day and smiled at people, it would get better.”
It’s an unusual approach, but Bestock has an unusual background. He is a theater guy, with limited experience running a nonprofit, short of his own short-lived production company. Before that, he was all theater, all the time. Playwrighting. Improv. A well-received, two-man show called “Wise Man.”
“Creative collaboration is my whole background,” he said, “The ‘yes, and …’ of improv.
“But it’s the same here,” he continued. “We train in joyous failure and creative collaboration. And more joy. I want more joy.”
Bestock first connected with the DNDA and the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in 2009, when he moved into one of the artists’ housing units in the building. He started volunteering, which gave him a close eye on how things worked — and how they didn’t.
“I saw a tremendous impact on youth-arts engagement, and then saw it die down,” he said. “So I’m committed to carrying the torch of what this place was: A safe place for folks to land who didn’t have anywhere to go. Kids of color, LGBTQ youth, low-income families.
“Programming here is key,” Bestock said. “Because if they’re not here, what the hell are they doing? I want to provide excellence for these kids.”
The new money from the WWF will go into making building upgrades like new seats in the theater; upgrading the kitchen to a commercial-level operation; a new roof and a new HVAC system. Nothing terribly glamorous, but necessary fixes for the foundation of what is to come.
“On a neighborhood scale, there’s never a shortage of things to do,” Bestock said. “You’ll never be able to solve all the problems. But you can see the effects of what you do.”