Tony Brown ’92 Gives Troubled Teens a Voice through Art

Art has the possibility to affect people – particularly children – in transformative ways. This was the message of LMU alumnus Tony Brown ’92, when he came to talk to students as a part of the KaleidoLA Speaker Series, which is organized by LMU’s Department of Art and Art History. Murphy Recital Hall was packed with students and faculty and there was a sense of excitement in the air from the beginning, which was amplified by Brown’s infectious energy.

Following his graduation from LMU with a degree in communication arts, Brown founded Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), where he now serves as CEO. It’s an after school program for underserved children and teens where they can have a safe space to explore art, athletics and academics. HOLA is an incredibly intensive and personalized set of programs, and has a measurable positive impact on the children and teens who participate. In fact, 90 percent have seen an improvement in their grades since joining HOLA.

This community-oriented program has taken flight, and has helped bring excitement and pride to countless families. HOLA has also given children opportunities, such as traveling to London to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic or scholarships to art school. But more than just the tangible results, Brown and HOLA have given these children a goal and have validated their dreams. Many teens and children are starving for individualized attention, and HOLA provides a safe center where they can find and share their voice.

The KaleidoLA audience was visibly fascinated by Brown’s life’s work. Before he took the stage to address the crowd, he played a video that explained what HOLA is and what they do. He then approached the podium with tears in his eyes and his voice breaking. He apologized and explained that HOLA just means the world to him.

Audience members asked how LMU prepared him, what major he was, and why he started HOLA. Brown said LMU prepared him by teaching him how to be a humble servant, even though on the bluff we often feel isolated and like we’re on an island. His senior year, Brown said, he and classmates saw the L.A. riots from the bluff, and he watched the city go up in smoke. It was then when he decided that he wanted to do something that would make an impact for his community. He wanted to pass it forward and said that “we need to do better for our neighbors.”

After his talk, which ran fifteen minutes over the scheduled time because of the number of audience questions, Brown sat down for a few more questions. His charm did not wear off, and his big grin and positivity are hard to ignore. In fact, during the interview, he ran into a classmate his time at LMU. They exclaimed and embraced as old friends do, talking about the old days. Always humble, Brown claimed that he was the nerd, over his friend’s strenuous objections. She told me that much like his is today, back in his LMU days he was loveable, smart and involved in music, athletics and Greek Life. Just like so many LMU students today, Brown was fully immersed in University life.

Asked what messages he wanted the audience to walk away with, he said, “I want them to feel the sense that you cannot be indifferent to the importance of art in our society. Kids are dropping out of school or barely receiving high school diplomas, and art can counteract that. Art is communication, and we need to remember that.”

Brown also emphasized the importance of art education in the academic life of all students, despite some startling statistics. “Art gives people a voice,” he said. “It is a vehicle to help them realize their potential. By law, arts need to be funded, yet only 38 percent of schools have an arts program that is funded and flourishing.”

Brown talked about the importance of a being given a second chance, and how HOLA provides troubled teens with that often rare opportunity. He spoke passionately about one former student who was going to be arrested for tagging a postal truck. Brown convinced the authorities to let HOLA try to reach him and help him channel his energy and talents toward something productive. That student is now a professional artist whose work is presented in galleries, and is just one example out of many of the power that art has to build confidence and give opportunity, even where least expected.

The reporter Cathren Killedjian is a senior communication studies and English double major.