Powerful Creative Youth

discussing a milestone gift with ZUMiX in Boston

ZUMiX, a creative youth development center located in East Boston, Massachusetts was recently the recipient of a one million dollar gift from billionaire MacKenzie Scott. The gift was a transformative one for the small arts nonprofit, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year.

July 11th, Walk for Music 2021 (Bremen Street Park to Piers Park); Photo: ZUMiX.org

Madeleine Steczynski, co-founder and executive director of ZUMiX, said in an interview with ArtsEditor that, more than anything, a gift like this allows the arts organization to establish long-term financial security in a way never before seen in their three decades of operation.

“For a lot of the last thirty years, we were two to three months from being out of business at any given point,” said Steczynski. “This gift is a huge safety net, and it allows our staff to focus on day-to-day programming without having to worry about their jobs.”

MacKenzie Scott, who helped to found and develop Amazon with her now ex-husband Jeff Bezos, donated to ZUMiX as part of her ongoing philanthropy across the country. The music and arts organization was one of 286 nonprofit organizations that received surprise funding from Scott and her husband Dan Jewett. More than two billion dollars was given away in this effort, all to nonprofit organizations like ZUMiX that serve underprivileged or historically overlooked communities.

“To be chosen like this is phenomenal,” said Steczynski. “A stranger, who just so happens to be the third richest woman in the United States, did her research and determined that we were worthy of a gift like this. It makes it feel like our thirty years of hard work have been recognized.”

For now, the gift money is sitting untouched in a special bank account, while the organization’s leadership determines the best way to fund their work long-term. But, Steczynski notes, even just being mentioned alongside all the other amazing organizations that also received gift money has been incredibly impactful.

“I’ve had people from Ireland call me up and say they saw ZUMiX in the news,” Steczynski said. “Before this, no one outside of East Boston knew what we were doing. Now, for a moment at least, we’re newsworthy all over the world.”

Radio Block Party 2019; ZUMiX, 260 Summer Street, East Boston, MA; Photo: Mario Jarjour

ZUMiX was founded in 1991 by Madeleine Steczynski and her co-founder Bob Grove as a response to a wave of youth violence across the city of Boston. What began as a summer songwriting program for just twenty-four students quickly evolved and grew into an expansive and extensive music and arts organization. In 1993, they created a free outdoor summer concert series that is still running today, and in 2010, the organization moved into the Engine Company 40 Firehouse at 260 Sumner Street in East Boston, where they now serve thousands of students and community members through their year-round arts programming.

In 2021, after a difficult year of all-virtual programming, ZUMiX returns to East Boston with a bang. In addition to their educational youth programs, the organization’s annual Walk For Music, a fundraiser that sees hundreds of citizens walking from Bremen Street Park to Piers Park to hear live music, was held on July eleventh and marked the beginning of their Summer Concert Series. Featuring local artists like Ava Sophia, Dzidzor, and Kotoko Brass, the Summer Concert Series will run through August twenty-ninth, and each week’s performance will feature an opening performance from a ZUMiX youth ensemble.

“We really believe in the power of young people to cultivate change, and we do that through music,” said Steczynski in her July 8th interview with ArtsEditor. “We give the twelve-year-olds the opportunity to be exploratory and follow their passions. They discover what they’re good at, stay in the program, and then carry that with them into their adult life.”

July 11th, Walk for Music 2021 (Bremen Street Park to Piers Park); ZUMiX, 260 Summer Street, East Boston, MA; Photo: Wayne Chinnock

As she spoke, the haphazard sounds of a Beatles song slowly played began to rise from the practice rooms below her. Students, the last group of that day, were laughing, talking, and playing lazily in time, and the sounds of their expressions filled every corner of the old echoey firehouse.

It was the first week that students and staff had been back in the building since March of 2020, and the entire building was abuzz with the excitement that such a return brought.

“When we have this place fully programmed you can hardly hear yourself think up here,” said Steczynski. “But we’ve really missed it.”

Katie Gibson and Najwa Aswad, recent additions to the ZUMiX staff, agreed. “It’s great to hear this live music coming up from the floor all day,” said Gibson.

For now, the additional rooms on the second floor of the building are still vacant, but the team at ZUMiX made it clear that it would not be that way for very long. Soon, the recording studio and radio station housed at the fire station would be full of eager, music-minded students, and the beautiful, overwhelming cacophony of students discovering their passion would fill the space once again.

ZUMiX has decided to go all out in celebrating their thirtieth anniversary and the staff there have a full three years of celebration planned—a novel idea based on the idea of a record spinning on a turntable at 33 ⅓ rotations per minute. Their new summer programming is a part of that—as are all the plans they have for their students this coming school year—but a major part of their celebration involves looking back on the impact the organization has had on its community and beyond in the last three decades.

Madeleine Steczynski smiled as she recalled the story of a former student who has since gone on to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics since her time at ZUMiX. The director explained that, while that student did learn and study music at ZUMiX, what they learned was how not to give up on themselves. It’s that drive and those lessons that have helped so many students navigate their lives after their time at ZUMiX is complete.

“Many students don’t take up music professionally after their time in the program,” Steczynski said, “but they always walk away understanding themselves better. We’ve had all sorts of alumni coming out of the woodwork these last few months with really powerful stories about the impact the program had on them. It’s been great to see and hear how the community has stuck together.”

With a one million dollar gift behind them, ZUMiX now has a chance to keep serving East Boston and beyond for another thirty years to come. It’s a responsibility and an honor they seem to not take lightly, and if this summer’s programming is any indication, the students and staff have quite a bit more to give the community around them.