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ELLE chats with Andrea Kerzner, founder and CEO of Lalela, an organisation that is using the arts curriculum to bring about meaningful change in the lives of at-risk youth.

Human Rights Day Hangberg 2014 - 58

Tell us about Lalela. 

Through Lalela’s arts curriculum and critical messaging component, we ignite imagination and teach children how to map and manifest their dreams and goals, launching the possibility of a different future for themselves and their communities.

Everyday after school, in the hours when children are most vulnerable to abuse of every kind, we work to break the barriers of challenge. We start with age six in developing the art of imagination and we continue through grade 12 to connect the arts to everything important in a child’s life, from core academics to critical life skills. Our role in arts education is to help blaze the trail in whole brain thinking with a proven path to innovation and new job creation.  Lalela provides a safe space for students to imagine and manifest a different future for themselves and for their communities.

By building our curriculum at the intersection of arts education, academic achievement and critical life skills, Lalela’s workshops activate whole brain thinking, developing the creative potential of at-risk youth – empowering them to become innovative role models and future leaders.

We began in Cape Town during the FIFA World Cup in 2010 with just 20 students in the township of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay.  Just five years later, we have continued to grow and cross borders, working in 11 communities in South Africa, Northern Uganda and the South Bronx, N.Y.  We currently serve over 2 500 students and growing every year.

In Cape Town, we are now seeing a positive impact from our work in the townships of Masiphumelele, Hangberg, and Imizamo Yethu.  Through strong partnerships with the Amy Biehl Foundation and Afrika Tikkun we expanded our outreach to include Mfuleni and Nyanga.

In November 2015 we officially launched our arts education programmes at our Centre of Arts and Innovation in Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg, which plays a significant role in the movement to transform the inner-city.

Through our partnership with the David Rattray Foundation, we work at Oscarsburg Primary and High School in Rorke’s Drift, a rural community in KwaZulu Natal faced with some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world.

In Northern Uganda, situated a few hours north of Kampala, Hope North is a living and learning community centre for former child soldiers, orphans, and other vulnerable children affected by the ongoing civil war. Our partnership with Hope North brings a movement of peace and new leadership to these former child soldiers and refugee children of war and conflict.

Lalela provides after school arts education to one of the highest at-risk communities in the United States and we continue to build our programmes and seek qualified partnerships.

When and why did you start Lalela?

There is a crisis.  Youth living in poverty and low-income communities are robbed of the opportunities that every child deserves.  This has become a vicious cycle.  Growing up in at-risk environments without adequate education and support, youth turn to drugs, violence, and crime, which perpetuate an endless circle of challenge and struggle for our communities.

According to the SA Centre for Development and Enterprise, South Africa has the worst education system in middle income countries, even worse than lower-income African countries.  Of 100 students that start school, only 50 will make it to grade 12, 40 students will pass, and 12 will enroll at a tertiary institution.  For lower income schools, the above is more tragic: three out of 10 will make it to grade 12.  The unemployment rate in South Africa is the third highest in the world and 18 to 24-year-olds that have no post-secondary education have the highest probability of being unemployed for substantial periods, if not permanently.  The result is little motivation to remain in school and no sense of a positive future.

I began Lalela after witnessing first-hand the transformative power of the Arts.  Before launching Lalela in SA we spent time working with refugee children from Darfur in Eastern Chad and with child soldiers in the Eastern Congo. Through our work providing the Arts to these at-risk youth, we witnessed the power of the Arts not only as a tool for psych-social support and healing but also as a tool for personal transformation.


My journey in educational arts began 10 years ago in a remote village in KwaZulu Natal. Sitting on the cement floor surrounded by children, many of whom were orphaned by AIDS and hardened by the effects of poverty, I experienced a truly transformative moment. The children, previously shut down and quiet, became curious and engaged as they began making masks.  Then one at a time they donned their masks and began sharing their stories. That day I witnessed the power of creative expression in providing healing and joy.

After working in KwaZulu Natal, I spent time in Eastern Chad working with refugee children from the war in Darfur.  Once again I witnessed the restorative power of the Arts as hundreds of children lined up to enter a small tent to paint kites as a way of sharing their stories of challenge and hope.  Soon after, I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo in collaboration with UNICEF where we provided workshops in art and music to child victims of war. These programmes enabled boy and girl soldiers to harness the power of the Arts to imagine a new future for themselves, one of real peace and possibilities.

Growing up in South Africa, I saw many organisations providing aid; we wanted to provide a more sustainable long-term change. By empowering youth through the Arts, Lalela’s programmes are definitely a hand up, not a hand out.

We officially brought Lalela to Cape Town in July 2010, during the FIFA World Cup. This was a particularly vulnerable time for at-risk learners who were out of school for six weeks. We started our programme with a handful of students in partnership with the South African National Gallery (SANG) to provide arts education for youth from disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape. After the six-week period ended, we had a regular group of 20 students from Imizamo Yethu.  The principal of Oranjekloof Primary asked us, ‘Can we continue?’ and we did.  From this time, we continued to connect the positive power of the Arts to character development, life skills, and academic achievement.  Lalela Project Trust was registered as a non-profit organisation in South Africa in February 2011 and has since grown to over 2 500 students.

What are some of the challenges you faced in the early stages and how did you deal with them?

Our growth began organically.  Schools and partner organisations were approaching us as they saw the success of our programmes.  From a fundraising point of view, our needs became more demanding. Donors often view the arts as something ‘extra or unnecessary’.  That’s why the arts are often the first subject to be cut from a school when there is a shortage of resources.  This is tragic as the importance of creativity in a child’s life is critical.  At Lalela, it has been so rewarding to observe the impact our programmes are having on the students we work with.

Due to misperceptions about the arts, there’s difficulty in convincing donors that the power of the arts is an ideal solution to help at-risk students navigate a clear path in a world that is often cluttered with severe hazards such as poverty, racism, gang violence, HIV/AIDS, and physical and substance abuse.


Because of this challenge, Lalela focuses a considerable amount of resources on measuring our impact to ensure we are truly catalysing positive change in our students.  We completed a Rapid Analysis in 2014 and found the following outcomes:

  • Our students’ creative and artistic interests and abilities have been developed.
  • They have become more self-aware, have better self-esteem and confidence and are better able to openly communicate.
  • They now have a positive way to deal with psychosocial issues, and are able to healthily express emotions and manage stress.
  • They have become more interested in becoming leaders and are acquiring the skills to become leaders.
  • They are able to think more critically and innovatively.
  • They have learnt how to respect and value others and are interacting differently with others.
  • Their school attendance, involvement and performance have improved.
  • They are behaving more positively.
  • They have acquired skills to assist them in finding careers, setting goals, and envisioning a brighter future.

These outcomes show what a difference the arts can make in such a short period of time.  We continue to measure our impact and grow our programmes.  Success for us would be for me to be out of a job because the arts have become a valued subject in every school curriculum.

How do you choose the schools to partner with?

Living in Hout Bay, I watched a township grow across the valley from our family home and felt compelled to help.  We started with three schools in Hout Bay: Oranjekloof Primary, Sentinel Primary, and Hout Bay High School.

Due to the success of our initial partnerships with these three schools, two more schools and the Masiphumelele Library approached us about partnerships.  In addition to partnering with schools, we partner with other youth development organisations that have an established infrastructure. When approached by a potential partner, we begin by conducting a Needs Assessment to ensure Lalela would be providing a service of value to that community. We are careful to never assume we know what the problem in a community is, let alone the solution.  Lalela is the Zulu word meaning ‘to listen’ and so at first, we do just that. Another consideration is that there are many NGOs working in South Africa and we believe it is really important not to duplicate services.  The Needs Assessment determines if we’d be filling a real gap.

In addition to a Needs Assessment, we do a financial evaluation of all our potential partners to ensure that a joint venture would be sustainable.

Why art?

Research proves that arts education enriches the lives of students, increasing their academic, social, mental and economic wellbeing over the long-term.  Specifically, arts education contributes to six key outcomes, which are key indicators of success in life and in academics.


  • Students engaged in the arts are five times less likely than their peers to drop out of school and twice as likely to graduate from college, allowing them to pursue greater career opportunities. For at-risk students, arts education increases school attendance, student motivation and academic success across the curriculum, with art students outperforming their peers on standardised tests.
  • Students who study the arts re-evaluate their work as they go and develop advanced problem solving skills, adapting their artwork to new perspectives or materials. As a result, art students are more likely to approach problems with patience and innovative thinking.
  • Arts education provides students with a wide variety of collaborative projects, ranging from painting murals to performing in a play. This teaches students how to work as a team, navigating each other's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Students in the arts receive constant, constructive feedback and understand that feedback is a tool for improvement. Artists persistently draft, practice or rehearse their work before its presentation. They develop the humility and grit to acknowledge criticism and adjust their art as needed. Grit and perseverance developed in arts education translates into other academic subjects and goes beyond secondary education.
  • In the arts, students are not confined by one answer. Instead, they are continually asked to try new things, take risks, and seek alternatives. This kind of creative thinking is a key first step towards innovation, which is essential in an increasingly competitive world.
  • The presentation of their work, through exhibit or performance, gives art students a sense of accomplishment. As a result, they develop a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence.

Our curriculum of innovation, art and music creates an exciting entry point for learners. It crosses all language and cultural barriers.

What would you say has been the most rewarding part of working on Lalela?

The most rewarding aspect of working on Lalela is seeing our students transform from engaging in destructive behaviours to graduating high school and even entering into tertiary institutions.

One story I love to tell is Siyolisi’s.

Siyolisi was in a gang and growing up in one of our most marginalised communities, at risk of losing all hope in life. He was interested in art, so when he heard about our programme, he signed up.  One of Siyolisi’s paintings was selected to be included in an exhibition in our Lalela Gallery at the One & Only Cape Town Hotel.

Siyolisi said that seeing his painting hanging up in the gallery at the opening of the exhibition, which was attended by many people, he felt so proud and knew then that ‘anything in life was possible.’

Siyolisi left the gang, finished high school and is now in his second year studying graphic design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.  He has also been trained to become a Lalela facilitator and works part-time facilitating our classes in Masiphumelele, helping youth from his community move from seeing no hope, to seeing a new world of possibility.

Another rewarding part of working on Lalela has been the art world relationships we’ve been able to cultivate and the effect these relationships have had on our students. For example, when Robin Rhodes was having an exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery, our students had the unique opportunity of working with an internationally recognised artist. They look at Robin and they think, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’

Over the past few years we’ve had the honour of being the only NGO to have a booth at the Cape Town Art Fair where we exhibit our students’ artwork. When our students visit the booth and see their work presented at a world class art fair, you can see the sense of pride glowing on their faces.  Students from Lalela’s Leadership Programme help work the booth and it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to see the business side of the arts.  This year we are excited and grateful to also be participating in the Johannesburg Art Fair.

Through our relationship with Billy Domingo of espAfrika our students also get real-world working experience at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF).  Lalela students have the opportunity to participate in CTIJF’s skills development programme designed to introduce students to event management and production management through workshops with industry professionals.  Then our students actually get to work at the festival!

These experiences with the established art world give Lalela students a new sense of purpose and possibility, contributing to higher than average graduation and matriculation results.  For example, at Hout Bay High, 95% of Lalela's Seniors graduated, compared to 62% of the 2014 class overall. At Hout Bay High’s end-of-year prize giving ceremony, all students earning top honours were a part of Lalela’s programmes. The principal recognised our impact in his speech, saying ‘We couldn’t have done it without Lalela.’

It has been gratifying to receive recognition from the principals we work with who see our programmes increasing their students’ visual literacy, confidence, grit, and willingness to stay in school.  One of our proudest accomplishments is that Lalela classes have become compulsory for first and eighth graders in the schools we work in.

Our accomplishments would have been impossible without our incredibly committed team and our actively engaged Board Members who all work together tirelessly to accomplish Lalela’s mission and realise our shared vision.

It has also been fulfilling to see our programmes translate into social action.  Through our Photography for Change curriculum, for example, students were prompted to identify community issues they face daily.  The photography workshops culminated in a project where students used their new skills to capture moments in the community of Imizamo Yethu that speak to those social problems.  Ultimately, the students were challenged to ideate on ways to improve their community’s situation.  One group of students chose the issue of sanitation.  It was through the lens of the camera that their attention focused on the filth they were living in.  This led to social action. This group of students hired the community centre for Mandela Day, exhibited their photographs and spoke to community leaders urging them to work with the community in community clean up.  The result was community upliftment, social cohesion, and social action.


What does the future look like for Lalela?

Today Lalela directly serves over 2 500 students from age six through post-high school in our locations in South Africa, Northern Uganda, and the South Bronx, N.Y.  We can expect continued growth and hope to serve over 3 000 students by the end of the year.  In terms of growth, we have many exciting partnerships developing as well.  Due to the success we’ve experienced with Afrika Tikkun, we are in conversations about going into their Hillbrow Centre.  We will also be bringing our arts curriculum to Durban through a partnership with Alicia Keys’s organisation, Keep a Child Alive.  We have an exciting opportunity through Mellon Educate, which has approached us about going into 17 of the schools they work with.  Through these opportunities and others on the horizon, our reach will grow exponentially over the next few years–enabling us to provide arts education to more and more at-risk youth in South Africa.

To keep up  to date with Lalela's latest projects, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube or visit their website 



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