They Should Dream Big

Cassandra Holden AC ’10 uses a vibrant sculpture project to help teen mothers raise their sights to a better future

by Tzivia Gover

Cassandra HoldenFrom outside it looks like a dangling forest of dark greens and gold. Up close it resembles seaweed swaying in deep water. The mobile, suspended in the atrium-like foyer of Holyoke Community College’s Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development, is made of 55 seven-foot-long crumpled metal strips hanging from a woven bamboo structure. It is the size of a narrow garage. In short, you can’t miss it.

Which is precisely the point for Cassandra Holden AC ’10, the artist who created the sculpture with a dozen teen mothers at the Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holden hopes that through art, she can help these young women—who live in neighborhoods plagued by gang warfare, drugs and poverty—become more visible. “Culturally we tend to dismiss young mothers,” she says.

Holden, 41, came to the small, alternative school to create the mobile after she won funding for the project from the Helen Gurley Brown Magic Grant, which is awarded to Ada Comstock Scholars and recent Ada graduates to underwrite the development of innovative ideas. The grant was made possible by the late, legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine; Brown didn’t attend Smith, but she expressed an affinity for the college’s commitment to educating women with diverse life experiences.

Holden said the Care Center’s unique approach to education, in which pregnant and parenting teens who’d dropped out of school could study for the GED exam as well as learn poetry, yoga, theater and athletics, reflected her own idealistic beliefs about learning

Working with the students, overhearing their conversations during class, she quickly understood that making art was only a fraction of what these young women needed. As the students began to cut and sand sheets of metal, painting and attaching them to a frame, they would talk about boyfriends who were in jail, a relative who’d been shot on the street the day before or a long night spent in the emergency room with a sick child. What role did art play, Holden wondered, when what these students really needed was immediate support for lives steeped in trauma and uncertainty?

The sculpture itself—designed and executed over four months—has helped her find an answer. “When you look at it you don’t see the same thing twice. It gives you a sense of hope and possibility,” she said. The mobile is titled Alchemy. To Holden that means transformation, including the deep, lifelong change that is catalyzed by education.

The Care Center students, with their tenacious pursuit of education, reminded Holden of her own educational journey. She grew up in a creative family in rural Vermont, enrolling at Smith in 1990 as an art major. After a few years, she left college to start her own business as a custom-clothing designer. She reentered Smith as an Ada Comstock Scholar at age 28, but left school again to take care of her ailing father. Five years later, she began taking classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and then Holyoke Community College (HCC). In 2009, she returned to Smith as an Ada—and 20 years after starting work on her bachelor’s degree, she graduated. “I understand that profound and nurturing connection to family, and the conflict between that and focusing on education,” she said. “Care Center students also have those competing needs. They are quite young, but they have very mature responsibilities, taking care of young children . . . in addition to dealing with violence and other things in their lives.”

Holden sees art as a way to help them find creative strategies for confronting difficult situations. Care Center graduate Tamara Smith is now enrolled at HCC and gets to see the results of her hard work on her way to classes. “Because we’re young moms people don’t respect us,” Smith said, adding that when they look at the mobile, “They’ll see we’re not just messing around.”

Holden hopes that when the other students matriculate at HCC they, too, will enter the Kittredge Center and take note of the vibrant mobile. “I hope it will remind them that they don’t have to be small—they should dream big.”

Tzivia Gover is the author of Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House, a book about her experience teaching poetry at the Care Center.

Summer 2013 SAQ