Hope at the Southern Shores: Making Rainbows in the Time of Covid

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Hope at the Southern Shores: Making Rainbows in the Time of Covid

Denay Maberry, Cofounder, The Rainbow Academy


RISE: R (Resilience) I (Innovation) S (Sustainability) E (Empowerment)

According to 2020 UNESCO report on education, more than 1.5 billion learners across the globe were unable to attend school because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdowns. South Africa was not exempt; most of our young learners here lacked Internet or smartphone access, preventing them from utilizing any of the few online teaching platforms available to them. Compounding this, many arts non-profits in South Africa—all of which provide a buffet of critical social and community services—faced severe rates of closure as funding and sponsorships disappeared in every direction.

At the Rainbow Academy, we felt it too. An award-winning business and performing arts school, the Academy is a registered non-profit organization based in Cape Town, South Africa. Targeting 18- to 25-year-old students from vulnerable, at-risk, and disadvantaged backgrounds, we have provided one- or two-year scholarship programs that include academic, professional performance experience, and practical on-the-job training in music, performing arts, film, hospitality, cultural tourism, and entrepreneurship since June 2010. 

Photo: Rainbow Academy

And then, like so many other non-profit organizations during lockdown, we suddenly plunged into a financial crisis. Many of our longstanding individual, government, and corporate funders were forced to cut their support. Our students, who come from Cape Town’s most severely challenged socio-economic households, were stranded in crime-riddled communities, looking on as many of their parents lost their jobs, their incomes, and their social security. We were faced the agonizing task of reducing our team to skeletal numbers on bare salaries…or worse, closing our doors for good.

This is no small thing. South Africa was named the “most unequal country in the world” by The World Bank in 2019. This 2021 Global Citizen article explores that designation further citing the digital divide as a driving force behind disparate household incomes. The inequality gap has only grown since Covid, and unemployment is at an all-time high for youth ages 15–24. We felt the strain of this disparity acutely during lockdown, fearing that our fiscal limitations would only contribute to it.

Despite overwhelming feelings of loss, fear, and failure, the academy resolved to RISE above our limitations in an all-out effort to continue “spreading rainbows” in the time of Covid. It became our guiding principle: Resilience, Innovation, Sustainability, and Empowerment. We focused on adapting and restructuring our program with an emphasis on sustainability, to ensure that we could continue to provide education, empowerment, and employment for South Africa’s underprivileged youth.

Photo: Rainbow Academy

Our first goal was to launch a nation-wide fundraising campaign to raise funds to move our teaching, funding, performance, and community programs online. Our students were sponsored with data and basic smart phones that enabled them to access our newly developed online teaching system, putting them on track to graduate in February 2021. An online community arts program was also created to provide opportunities to collaborate with surrounding youth and communities—a constructive and therapeutic exercise for those in crisis.

Our new organizational strategy also focused on addressing critical gaps in the non-profit and creative arts sectors.

First, we expanded our performing arts curriculum to address the need for digital innovation in artists’ skills sets, adding training in digital marketing, social media, branding, and artist promotion. We also introduced a new stream of examinable subjects in digital technologies, including film, multimedia production, and content creation. We geared our program toward the new digital economy, preparing them for an industry that now demands artists take a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach to content creation and distribution.

Another priority was to sustain existing jobs for our performing arts teachers and managers by upskilling them with new online teaching skills and multimedia production. Our students, using their newfound digital skills, wrote and co-produced two online professional shows—not just for fundraising purposes but to create employment opportunities for directors, choreographers, and technical crew who were struggling to find work. Our aim was to create as many jobs as possible for music and performing arts teachers from our communities who might otherwise be left behind in the new digital economy. We also wanted to close the “digital divide” by providing hands-on training and resources to equip our students, staff, and communities with the skills they need to function and thrive in the new digital economy.

Photo: Rainbow Academy

Despite the abysmal outlook for the arts funding landscape, the Academy still managed to secure operational funding from three new corporate organizations and the South African government, allowing us to hold steady in empowering our team, our students, and our communities.

Opportunity lies in every crisis, no matter how agonizing. In those challenging moments, we are forged as changemakers through the choices we make. Our hero Nelson Mandela once said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” We strive to honor those words and RISE to face the challenges aheadCovid and otherwise. In doing so, we will continue to use our voice to uplift our youth and promote development, cohesion, and cultural diversity across South Africa.  


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