Photo by Shaima Shamdeen

Kim Keith is the Executive Director of Hilltop Artists, a role she has held since May 2017. She is also on the leadership team for the Out of School and Summer Learning Network (OSSLN), which she joined her first week as ED. Since becoming a partner she has served on the review committee for Summer Access Funds, helped plan and implement the Summer Learning Tour, and routinely provides guidance and support for the content and facilitation of the monthly OSSLN meetings.

In this Q&A Kim shares why she is committed to increasing access to the arts for Tacoma students.

What is the path the led you to Hilltop Artists?

I am a native of Hilltop. Jason Lee Middle School used to be Jason Lee Junior High, so this was my junior high school. I grew up three blocks from here. I’m actually living in the house that I grew up in.

I was hired at the Museum of Glass in 2001 to be the Associate Director of programs. I helped build the initial education programs there, and that was my introduction to glass, glass artists and glass making. While there, I created a program called the Remann Hall Women’s Project where I was working with young women who were incarcerated at Remann Hall, which is a Pierce County Juvenile Court detention facility here in Tacoma. That program was brought to Hilltop Artists in 2009 and was renamed Arts Connect, which we continue to operate.

I am a mixed-race person who grew up on the Hilltop, who has experience with glass and youth development. All of those different strands of my personal and professional career converged into this job and made this job my perfect fit.

How do you describe Hilltop Artists to someone who has never heard of it?

Hilltop Artists is a youth development organization that uses art as a means of engagement. We do three different types of glass art: glass blowing, glass fusion, and flameworking or lampworking. We work with 650 kids a year. We teach them the technical skills of engaging with the medium of glass and how to be a part of a team. You can’t do glass blowing by yourself.

Once students have matriculated through the initial programs, they are invited to join our advanced program, Team Production. These students produce the items that we sell in our gallery and at our twice-annual sales. They earn a scholarship in exchange for producing the items that we sell. Our after-school and summer programs are open to all students in Tacoma and Pierce County, and all of our programs are tuition-free.

How does Hilltop Artists center youth voices?

We have a Lil’ Board — they picked the name — and it’s a student board where they put forward their own initiatives. There is a student representative from that board who on our governing board. That student has voting rights and brings information from the Lil’ Board to the Big Board and vice versa – it’s a great example of a youth-adult partnership.

It’s important as a youth development organization that we incorporate youth voice in what we do. I think that young people are really in tune with what is just, so injustice strikes a cord with them.

What are some challenges that you face as Executive Director of Hilltop Artists?

Sustainability is a challenge for any organization, ensuring that the bottom line is met and that the organization is fiscally and culturally healthy. This is my first time as an ED so I’m still encountering things after a year and a half of being here, things that are new and challenging to me. It’s a big job. But I always take time for the students. I feel like that’s an important aspect of my job – knowing students by name and taking time to talk with them and mentor them, that’s just as important as donor stewardship, board relations, strategic planning and any number of executive functions that I perform.

What is your “WHY” for doing this work?

My most basic why is about giving back. I had a lot of people that were invested in my being the first person on either side of my family to go to college. I had people that invested time and energy into me when I was a young person. I am very much about giving that back. If there’s something I can do to make the road less rough for someone else, I want to do that.

What is your personal mantra?

Treat yourself the way you treat your best friend. I tend to be a perfectionist, and I get some pretty negative tapes going on in my own head if I’m not doing exactly what I think I should be doing or if I didn’t achieve the results that I wanted. I beat myself up and call myself names and I would never do that to my best friend. If I wouldn’t get down on her for making a mistake, why would I do that to myself? Just do better next time. Be gentle with yourself like you would be gentle with your best friend.