Jessica Sweeney ’11 loves to work, and that’s a good thing, because her various positions throughout Berkshire County keep her busy doing what she loves most; working with teens in community development.
In addition to serving as an artistic mentor for the teen-based Playwright Mentoring Project at the Barrington Stage Company, Sweeney is the founder and director of the Common Folk Artist Collective. Then, in August 2016, she was hired as the executive director of the Roots Teen Center, based on Eagle Street in North Adams.
“MCLA’s arts management department really was a game-changer. It helped me to understand what I wanted to do, and to build this amazing network in North Adams.”
After she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in fine and performing arts, and concentrations in theatre and arts management, Sweeney went home to Hadley, Mass. But when she did not find what she was looking for in that area, she returned to North Adams. “I discovered that I had abandoned these amazing opportunities that I had opened the door to for myself. I became involved, and I plan to be here for a long time.
“There are so many opportunities through MCLA’s arts management department to be tangibly involved with area programs,” Sweeney explained. “I had interned with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (NBCC) when I was a sophomore and realized, ‘Wow. I don’t want to just do theatre, I want to do community development. I care about how powerful the arts can be in developing the community, and that’s really what I want to do.”
Upon her return to North Adams, Sweeney applied for and got a job with the NBCC. “I was introduced to a lot of really good people who already were involved in work that I was interested in. I try to mirror that when I work with high school students because once you become involved with a community and build that connection, it’s hard to leave: that work becomes more valuable.”
Much of Sweeney’s work centers on the Roots Teen Center, on Eagle Street in North Adams. Open Wednesday through Friday, 4-8 p.m., the Center offers programming throughout the year that is influenced by its youth board and staff of volunteers. Activities include a monthly open-mic event and workshops to support its youth board. “We also have ‘Artdoors,’ in the summer, which is a hiking and art-infused program. The youth go on hikes and create art in response to the nature they encounter.”
The Roots Teen Center, which serve the Northern Berkshires, attracts youth aged 14 through 22. They include students who attend Drury and Mt. Greylock Regional high schools, as well as those who attend BaRT, and others from Hoosac Valley and McCann Technical high schools.
“We’re a flexible space. Our programming changes all the time,” Sweeney said. Music- and science-based programs are in the works. Another program under development will center on youth discussions on world events, why they care about what’s happening, and their solutions to the problems.
“It’s really a place that supports our youth’s voices,” Sweeney said. “There are a lot of very driven, creative young people in this community. This will be a place where they can hang out and that will connect them to resources to help them explore themselves and to help their community.”
Much of Sweeney’s work includes spreading the word about the Center, talking to potential donors, and strategizing – including for fundraising to help fulfill its mission. She also manages the Drop-in Center. Overseen by 45 adult, community volunteers, this includes training new volunteers and coordinating their schedules.
“This team sees the value that young people have in our community. They are advocates for our youth. They can say, ‘These young people care about the community, and they do good work,” she said.