A student works on a project during a summer camp in 2020 at the Crucible in West Oakland.
A student works on a project during a summer camp in 2020 at the Crucible in West Oakland. Credit: the Crucible

Back in 2015, I felt like doing something on a whim, so I signed up to take a fire performance course at the Crucible, a West Oakland nonprofit industrial arts school. Every Monday for six weeks, I showed up, walked past machinery that shaped metal, molded glass, and bound leather, and learned to twirl poi engulfed in flames around my head. 

Dancing with fire is one of many creative skills someone can learn at the Crucible, along with blacksmithing, ceramics, glasswork, woodworking, welding, and even neon sign making. Founded in Berkeley in 1999 and relocated to West Oakland in 2003, the Crucible is one of the country’s largest nonprofit industrial arts schools, reaching more than 8,000 people a year, according to its website.

Learning an industrial art or any craft can be extremely rewarding, but it’s also a privilege that often requires disposable income and extra time, and may seem out of reach for many low-income people. That’s why the Crucible is placing a focus on making sure its coursework is accessible to low-income and BIPOC people, especially youth. 

The Crucible offers scholarships, subsidized classes, and leadership programs to engage community members who otherwise might not be able to sign up. It also partners with local schools to engage students through field trips. Natasha von Kaenel, marketing director at the Crucible, said the exposure can be a powerful experience for kids who’ve previously struggled to learn in traditional classroom settings.

“The hands-on educational experiences that they can access at the Crucible school empowers them and inspires them to think differently about their careers, their interests, and what gets them excited,” said von Kaenel. 

A student working at the Youth Summer Camp at the Crucible in West Oakland.

The organization is working towards a goal of providing more than $100,000 a year in scholarships, with priority given to BIPOC and low-income residents in Oakland. The Crucible currently reserves 20% of all its youth classes for scholarship students. 

The Crucible’s funders include the Port of Oakland, which recently gave the nonprofit a $5,000 grant to expand youth access for the third year in a row. That money will be used specifically to pay tuition for 10 BIPOC youth to participate in the school’s youth industrial program, where they’ll gain new skills in blacksmithing, welding, and other trades. The port is a major employer of industrial trades in the area, and von Kaenel said the programming can expose local youth to career opportunities in industrial trades that could lead to well-paying jobs in the future.

One of the Crucible’s signature programs, the Fuego Youth Leadership Program, has been operating since 2010. Each year, up to 10 students are selected, the only requirement being that they’ve taken at least three courses at the school. Each participant is paired with an instructor for two consecutive summers, immersing themselves in creative work and exploring potential careers. At the graduation ceremony, which takes place at the end of July, students unveil their final works of art. Roughly 79% of the leadership program’s participants self-identify as students of color, and 80% are low income.

A young student welds at the Crucible industrial arts school in West Oakland.

The Crucible also offers a Pre-Apprentice Program that provides young people with training in metalworking and the arts, a Bike Program that teaches students the basics of bike mechanics, and a Public Art Program where participants get to create site-specific art installations.

“There are kids in third or fourth grade, and they’ve never seen or been exposed to what these art forms are. Many adults haven’t, either,” said von Kaenel. “And you can’t know that you’re interested in something if you don’t even know what it is.”

While the majority of the scholarships support youth, the school also has an adult scholarship program. The Raphael Allen Scholarship Fund, named in honor of a National Park Service ranger from Oakland who was a regular at the Crucible and passed away in 2018, allows a certain number of people of color to participate in courses free of charge. 

But accessibility is about more than just finances, said Rachel Anne Palacios, an educator with the Crucible: It’s about community engagement and providing culturally relevant classes, as well as understanding a course’s functional use, which can make the cost easier to justify. 

Palacios was brought on board last summer to teach a class on Mexican tin art for kids of all ages. During the 3-hour course, Palacios made sure to educate students on the meanings and symbolism of the art before they began creating. “Teaching people that way bonds people together, as opposed to just learning how to do something, just to do it,” she said.

Getting exposure to various art forms at the Crucible can help people decide whether they enjoy something enough to take it further by enrolling in accreditation courses offered elsewhere. “If you wanted to get a certification in welding, for example, the Crucible is a place for you to experiment to see if it’s something you’re interested in doing,” said von Kaenel, before “going to a place like Laney College, where you could actually get accredited.”

The school also has plans to expand adult programs with Centro Community Partners, which provides entrepreneurial training to people who want to start a business where they can apply their skills.  

Classes are available to children as young as 8. For classes that require more supervision, such as fire courses, participants must be at least 12. Anyone curious about course offerings can attend family days and open houses, which are anticipated to be open again in the fall. 

Youth courses start at $135 for a 3-hour course, including woodturning, glass making, and neon tube bending (the Crucible is one of the few industrial arts locations nationwide that teaches neon glass sculpting). Adult courses range from $200 to $700.

More information, about scholarships and free or subsidized classes, is available on the website

Von Kaenel said the best way to support the Crucible in its goal of increasing scholarships is to sign up and participate in a class.

Brandy Collins

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.