Growing up in Portland, Ore., Emerald Mitchell looked forward to the afternoons she spent at Self Enhancement, Inc.
Self Enhancement, a nonprofit in the inner city neighborhood where Mitchell grew up, was dedicated to helping at-risk youth realize their full potential. Mitchell has never forgotten the values she learned there.
“[Self-enhancement] really inspired me to give back,” said Mitchell, who earned a doctorate in education in leadership and professional practice at Trevecca in 2016. “[The organization] really took on that north Portland community, especially those young people of color who were considered at risk. They took them under their wings and providing mentorship, tutoring opportunities and opportunities for growth.
“Being a part of that agency from second grade up until age 25—and even now I still have connections with them—it really taught me the power of mentoring and giving back to your community,” she continued. “That’s what inspired me to start Moves and Grooves back in 2002.”
Mitchell started Moves and Grooves, Inc., when she was a sophomore studying business at Nashville’s Fisk University. Committed to enhancing the lives of at-risk youth through arts and education, the nonprofit developed out of Mitchell’s own passion for dance and a desire to give back to the inner city communities surrounding Fisk.
“I’ve always had a passion for dance and teaching,” Mitchell said. “So I decided to volunteer at the local community center. So soon my class of five turned into a class of 50.”
While Mitchell enjoyed teaching the kids in her class, she also wanted to empower them. So while she continued to offer her dance classes free of charge, Mitchell did create one stipulation: to participate, you had to get your homework done first.
“I kind of began this thing where you could come here and dance for free, but let’s get this homework done first,” she said. “That’s how Moves and Grooves began: a simple volunteer project at a community center that grew into what it is today.”
Today, Moves and Grooves serves more than 200 children in five Metro Nashville public schools. Each school provides designated space for the after-school program, which provides one hour each of academic and enrichment activities for students. The staff uses various teaching methods to encourage learning, like math games, science experiments or group projects. Enrichment activities include dance classes, choreography and other arts-focused endeavors.
“I get my greatest joy just seeing the students light up, seeing that ‘ah ha’ moment and seeing their growth and progress,” Mitchell said. “A lot of our kids come to us with different emotional and social issues, and they can work those issues out through movement and art. To see them overcome those fears, adversities and challenges in their lives through the arts, that’s what makes me come back.”
Mitchell employs a staff of 12 at Moves and Grooves, four of whom are full-time. In addition to after-school programs, the nonprofit is also very involved in community advocacy and development. In the past few years, they’ve partnered with other organizations and groups to fight childhood obesity and increase literacy rates in children.
As a mentor and a community leader, Mitchell believes it’s important that she set an example for her students and her staff. That’s part of the reason she went back to school to get her doctorate.
“I use my Ed.D. as a positive example for my students as well as my staff,” Mitchell said. “Our motto here at Moves and Grooves is ‘Where the sky’s the limit.’ To me, reaching for the sky means doing your very best and going as far as you can in life just to see how far it will take you. Being a young woman of color, especially in the north Nashville community, it’s something the kids don’t see often, so I can inspire them to reach for the stars in their own lives.”
Mitchell takes that motto seriously. She has big plans for the future of Moves and Grooves.
“We want to create the first performing arts center for youth in Nashville,” Mitchell said. “We want to create a space where students can come in to receive academic tutoring and experience mentoring, as well as learning through the arts.”
She hopes to create an innovative space where Nashville students can take dance classes, music lessons, and drama classes all under one roof. Her dreams also include a cafeteria and space to teach youth about the culinary arts.