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Trinity United Methodist Church sits on Broad Street, across from the Salvation Army, a jewelry store declaring, "WE BUY GOLD, MONEY TO LOAN" and a corner store alerting patrons they can pay with cash and food stamps, but not credit cards.

As she makes her way to the church's back entrance every day, Deanna Brown passes these and the dozens of other markers of poverty in the community, giving her all the motivation she needs to continue devoting herself to People's School.

Brown works as the creative director for People's School, an organization based out of Trinity United that provides artistic training for Providence adults and which was founded by two Brown students, Adam Reich '03 and Marshall Clement '03.

"What the hope is, is that we'll have a place where we can teach people art skills … different outlets within the arts," Brown said. She explained that people can use the skills they learn through People's School in direct ways — by finding jobs within theater, painting or other artistic fields — and also by applying a newfound sense of self-confidence and social skills to their current work.

Deanna Brown is one of the prime beneficiaries of the school. Sonja Lee, Brown's "homegirl," introduced her to the organization in 2004, when Brown was a student in the fashion merchandising program at Johnson and Wales University. Brown was unemployed and realized that she "wasn't going to be able to get a job in (her) field." She said she had always wanted to be a singer and fashion designer, but felt that after a childhood spent in Providence's West End projects, she did not have the skill set and encouragement she needed to follow her dreams.

"I am a whole other generation of single mothers," Brown said, explaining that neither she nor her mother married before starting a family. By the time she finished her education at the University of Rhode Island, Brown had three children, and she was still "dealing with lots of issues" stemming from episodes of abuse. Without the skill set or money to start her own business, but understanding the historical and sociological basis for her position in life, Brown said she "became just angry," and that she needed an outlet for that anger.

"I was so inspired by the energy I found in that room," Brown said of her first People's School meeting of spoken-word artists, playwrights, actors and painters.

Brown's eyes lit up as she spoke about her first interactions with the school. A loud, emphatic person, she raised her voice and started to gesticulate even more, spreading her arms out fully and waving her hands.

"I got involved any way I could," she said.

After transferring from Johnson and Wales to URI, she took up a work-study program with People's School.

"We didn't really have much supervision," Brown said. "We just  stumbled through it."

Lack of oversight continued to plague People's School for years after Brown became involved. Despite a series of grants and continued community support, the school bounced between homes, and only found its current location in Trinity United in 2009. Last year also marked the first People's School program in three years.

In December, the school put on "Breaking the Chains," a theatrical workshop Lee initiated that tried to teach adults to "translate their emotions and stories into a play," Brown said.

She participated in it herself, because she "just needed to be inspired."

People's School also participated in a benefit concert on Saturday at Rosinha's Restaurant in Pawtucket, and helped raise almost $2,000 for Haiti relief efforts.

But though People's School has touched 300 to 400 people, according to Brown's estimate, it still has not achieved its full potential over the decade that has passed since Reich and Clement started the project as part of their work with the Swearer Center for Public Service.

By the time Brown had started with People's School, Reich and Clement had turned over the leadership of the organization to the residents it was supposed to serve. When they left, the organization lost a lot of its funding. Because most of the current administrators are low-income community members without access to anyone with enough money to support public initiatives, Brown said, the organization has not been able to do as much as she would like.

She wants to start a full theater company that could train members in lighting, technology, directing, videography and costume design. A few floors up from the school's offices, Trinity Repertory Company's old theater sits stagnant and unused. It has completely fallen apart in the 37 years since Trinity Rep left the church, but Brown said she dreams of new curtains, cutting-edge lighting systems and empowered actors someday filling the space.

"It's a big vision, but we're starting one person at a time," she said.

People's School has gotten closer to this eventual goal, particularly over the last few years.

After receiving a grant in 2008, the school was told by an outside evaluator that they needed a board and an official program. After receiving more direction and supervision from the Board of Directors, a group of six that includes past school participants, Brown secured space in Trinity United and started putting on programs.

She has been diligent about making these programs as successful as possible, by keeping costs low and providing activities for children during events.

Brown said she wants to address the issues that would prevent people from coming. Each of the school's programs will offer childcare, she said.

But even if it takes a few more years for People's School to expand and offer more consistent programs, Trinity United will continue to act as a community center for the West End of Providence, despite its limited funds.

"If I could articulate what happened in that building," Brown said, her voice trailing off. "We had a fire to do something."


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