Aerosol art, b-boying, deejaying and the history of hip hop are just some of the subjects kids can study this summer at a multicultural arts program in Chapel Hill. The Arts, Culture and Enrichment (ACE) Summer Program offers a curriculum of music, dance, creative writing, visual arts, theater and cultural studies to kids in grades K-12. Students will collaborate on creative projects, pursue individual areas of interest, publicly perform and exhibit their own artwork. Spaces are still open in the program, which runs June 19 through Aug. 12.

“Our whole teaching strategy is about self-esteem, building their confidence, and just doing it through the arts,” says Jason Mendez, executive director of the Potentialis Centre, the nonprofit that runs ACE.

Mendez, a Bronx native, is a Ph.D. candidate in UNC’s School of Education. He has developed multicultural arts programs for community organizations and public schools since 2004, when he was still working on his master’s degree in educational technology at North Carolina Central University. Mt. Olive College first lured him to North Carolina, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems. Following a stint in IT sales, Mendez discovered his passion for arts education. He worked as a preschool teacher, and together with some longtime friends, volunteered his time to teach arts classes after school. That planted the seed for Potentialis Centre, a nonprofit that aims to unlock kids’ potential and improve their academic achievement through the arts.

“We try to bring value to the arts, because in the school system there’s a respect for the arts, but they don’t see it as having educational value,” Mendez says. Potentialis shows kids how skills developed through the arts–such as design, verbal skills, mathematical logic, collaboration, communication and confidence–have real-world value and can help them have successful careers in whatever field they eventually choose. “We promote entrepreneurship,” Mendez says. “If these kids want to create a business, we give them the tools to do that.”

Practical guidance comes along with skills training, Mendez says. “We try to talk to people who are actually in the field to develop a curriculum that conveys that to the students. This is what you really need if you want to, let’s say, establish your career in photography, or in dance, or whatever the student is interested in.”

Breaking down racial barriers and stereotypes in the arts is also a goal of Potentialis, says dance teacher T.J. Burns, a behavioral specialist at Salem Middle School in Apex. “There’s a racial barrier within the arts,” Burns says. “You have your real classical art, like ballet and operas, and then if you look at hip hop or any kind of thing involving African-American culture, it’s really segregated.”

“People don’t want to take it seriously as art,” Mendez adds, citing problematic terms like “graffiti,” which connotes vandalism, vs. “aerosol art,” which he prefers. Burns’ uncle, the seminal aerosol artist Phase 2, helped Potentialis develop their curriculum on the hip-hop movement, which makes use of videos, articles and firsthand knowledge from the artists themselves.

While hip hop’s influence in popular culture has become ubiquitous, its original message has been perverted, something Mendez and his staff want to counteract. In commercial mainstream hip hop, “you have the half-naked girls, you have the diamonds and the chains and the cars,” Mendez says. “That’s not what we try to teach our students. We try to teach them Hiphop Kulture [Mendez’s preferred spelling of the term] started as a movement to help these exploited people have a voice.”

Putting this historical background together with skills instruction develops students’ critical awareness, Mendez explains. “One of our more popular dance programs has been our breakdancing, or b-boying classes, so we not only teach the kids how to breakdance, but we teach them the history of where it started, certain key figures and pioneers.” While the commonly used term is “breakdancing,” Potentialis instructors use the term “b-boying” (from “Bronx-boying”), which traces to hip hop’s origins.

Phillip Horton of Hillsborough, who turns 9 in June, took the b-boying class last summer. “I had never seen dancing like that,” he says. By the end of the class he was showing his friends how to do six-steps and handstands. “I taught them. It was pretty cool.” He recommends the program to other kids “because it’s fun. It’s a lot of exercise to be moving really fast.”

The cultural studies component of the ACE program teaches students about other cultures besides hip hop, including those of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. “[North Carolina] is a diverse location, and I think our curriculum reflects that,” says Mendez. “We have a diverse mix of staff also, and that reflects the population that we serve.”

This diversity is key, says Mendez. “When I was first developing this program, I felt like students are very segregated in their learning. But through the arts these students can get together and work, and all that doesn’t really matter. And they learn from each other through their different cultural understandings.”

Donations and grants from universities, private individuals, corporate matching funds and in-kind donations have helped Potentialis provide students with scholarships, out-of-state guest artists and lecturers, classroom space and other resources. This year, for example, the software training company Island Training donated laptops.

Businesses and organizations are invited to donate goods and services for silent auction, provide practice space, or even offer a wall for students to create a mural. Michael Rampley, who will teach aerosol art and stenciling in the ACE program this year, helped kids last year to create the geographic mural that adorns El Centro Hispano in downtown Carrboro.

The ACE Program will meet on UNC’s campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 19-Aug. 12. For more information, go to or contact Jason Mendez at, 914-8266.