ACT celebrates 10 years of enriching lives

The Arts Conservatory for Teens celebrated 10 years of improving the lives of teens by providing arts education to underserved school systems and communities on April 21 at St. Pete Pier’s Spa Beach Park.

BY GYPSY C. GALLARDO, The Black Media Alliance

ST. PETERSBURG — The Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT) team could not have chosen a more picturesque location for its 10th anniversary celebration.

The breakfast event, held April 21, was staged against a backdrop of the wind-swept waters of Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Pier’s Spa Beach Park. Music and mingling welcomed the audience of 250 sponsors and well-wishers, who were later regaled with live performances by a talented troupe of ACT’s current student artists.

The organization was founded in 2012 by visionary Dr. Alex Harris and co-founders Herbert Murphy, Derek Berset, and Shelia Reilly with a mission to educate, empower, and enrich the lives of youth and teens to foster healthy, productive, and responsible citizens.

From its humble beginnings as an after-school performing arts training program for 30 at-promise teens, ACT has blossomed into a world-class incubator for the creative workforce in a city now recognized as a beacon of the arts.

More than 13,000 young people have participated in ACT’s intensive development programs, such as its Summer Intensive, taught by Broadway performances, chart-topping recording artists, industry dance professionals, and the Young Artist Alliance, an advanced program for students exploring careers in the performing and visual arts.

Thousands more have taken part in ACT events and opportunities, including clinics, master classes, advocacy campaigns, live performances, and travel experiences.

ACT also manages school-based programs in partnership with Pinellas County Schools at four locations year-round. The early morning Character Essentials initiative focuses on building character and personal skill-building. It operates in the county’s Title 1 middle schools, including John Hopkins, Tyrone, Oak Grove, and Largo Middle.

The organization has never left its home base of operations in south St. Petersburg, where 75 percent of the city’s African-American community resides. ACT programs are available at several City of St. Petersburg community centers, including Enoch Davis Center, the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Center, Childs Park, and Lake Vista Recreation Centers. ACT’s Arts Magnet Program operates after school at the Factory St. Pete.

Yet, ACT’s impact is felt and seen across the globe as more and more of its alumni make their mark in diverse fields.

Many of ACT’s students have cultivated their gifts and talents in the performing arts and have gone on to the likes of Berklee College of Music, Otterbein University and have established careers in television, film, the music entertainment industry, and Broadway.

From the Broadway stage and creative business ventures to local careers in the corporate and non-profit sectors, ACT graduates are among its biggest fans and best ambassadors.

One such is minister and entrepreneur Shanoah Washington who shared her testimony at last week’s gathering.

“I was abandoned by both of my parents who were in the streets and caught up in drugs and gang life. I was left to be raised by my grandmother, who struggled to make an adequate living while secretly dealing with her own mental health issues and depression…and amid trying to navigate the woes of middle school, I was sexually abused.

“Needless to say, I was screaming on the inside for the dealer of life to immediately reshuffle the cards in my hand.

“As cliché as it may be, my prayers were answered by two of the unlikeliest and most unassuming people, Dr. Alex and Mr. Murphy.

“The conservatory for teens was being piloted, and upon meeting me, they recognized, even though all my broken pieces, there was something inside of me. They introduced me to a family of artists who nurtured my literary abilities.”

Today Washington holds four post-secondary degrees and is a partner in two business enterprises while operating the Sista2Sista Young Ladies Mentoring Program, which she created to reach young women from backgrounds similar to hers.

Murphy has since transitioned to a position with Business Advancement Solutions as its CEO and remains connected to the organization’s work. His son, Anthony Murphy, is one of several ACT alumni who have graced Broadway stages. The younger Murphy’s latest triumph is a new Broadway show that is scheduled to be announced this summer. In the tradition of “giving back,” he also now serves as artistic director of ACT’s Creative Workforce Summer Intensive.

Harris remains at the helm of the organization as its CEO. Unlike its early years, when the founders were a lone driving force, the ACT of 2022 has earned the backing of more than two dozen corporate partners and philanthropists, supporting a staff of 10 professionals, almost all artists themselves.

When asked to reflect on the 10-year milestone, Harris credited widespread community backing as a critical ingredient to ACT’s growing portfolio.

“I am so grateful for the embrace and support of our community,” said Harris. “Both the private and public sectors are critical to our organization’s forward move. We cannot do what we do without communal support.”

Local sponsors honored ACT’s decade of community impact with contributions totaling $150,000 for this year’s fundraiser (including $50,000 pledged during the April 21 breakfast).

St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens opened the event with accolades for ACT’s singular position in the city’s growing landscape of creative institutions.

This year’s title sponsor was First Home Bank, a BayFirst company, represented by Senior Vice President Valerie Fulbright, co-chair of ACT. The co-title sponsor was Heritage Insurance, with Ernie Garateix, CEO, present for the festivities.

“As the ongoing annual sponsor of ACT, we’re proud to support future creators and leaders at every stage of their artistic, personal, and financial journey,” said Fulbright. “We can’t wait to see what’s next for these and future talented artists in this community and beyond. At BayFirst we believe in the mission of ACT.”

“I believe in Alex and his vision, and I see the impact every time I give,” said Craig Sher, local real estate developer, and investor. He and his wife, Jan, are cornerstone supporters of ACT.

Looking ahead to the next decade, Harris said, “My team and I are inspired more than ever to continue the work of transformation for our young people by preparing them for the workforce, particularly the creative workforce, through our interdisciplinary curriculum.”

To learn more about ACT and its student artists, visit

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