Seen and Heard | Creative Youth Development

Join AFTA’s Creative Youth Development Webinar, Tweet Chat on Sept. 15

Learn more about Creative Youth Development as part of Americans for the Arts’ (AFTA) webinar series: “Arts Education: What You Need to Know” on Tuesday, September 15 at 3pm. MCC’s Dr. Erik Holmgren will join partners from the President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities, and National Guild for Community Arts Education, to discuss this emerging field. Register for the 20-minute webinar, and continue the conversation in Twitter using #CYD from 8-9pm (ET).

New Fiscal Year Brings New & Expanded CYD Investment, Services

The Massachusetts Cultural Council  approved a spending plan yesterday for the coming year that will invest more than $12 million in grants to nonprofit cultural organizations, local cultural councils, education programs, and working artists across the Commonwealth.

Of that spending, more than $1 million will go to supporting Creative Youth Development programs and services , including:


  • Three-year grants of $15,000/year awarded to 63 organizations:

$675,000 invested in 45 YouthReach projects, which promote integration of substantive out-of-school arts, humanities, and science opportunities into a collaborative community response to the needs of young people – specifically those at risk of not making a successful transition to young adulthood.

$270,000 invested in 18 SerHacer projects, which support the growing number of intensive, ensemble-based music programs that create music as a vehicle for youth development and social change. SerHacer is the first public support system for El Sistema-inspired work in the nation.

  • $10,000 for the creation of a new YouthVoice Program that will provide small grants to young people in funded YouthReach or SerHacer programs to support projects that demonstrate their value as artists in the Commonwealth.

Training: The pilot of a Creative Youth Development Fellows Program to prepare young teaching artists and youth workers to be effective in the classroom, in non-profits, and in their work across sectors with schools and funders.

Research: Support for studies that demonstrate the social, academic, and economic impact of Creative Youth Development.

Resources: The Johnson String Library, which works to remove the musical instrument as a barrier to participation and as a burden to programs, families, and young people.

More Than the Arts

The following is a letter to the editor that appeared in The Recorder.  It is a fantastic reminder of how Creative Youth Development transcends discipline and allows us to honor creativity in unexpected places:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

In regards to the article “Statewide arts funding increases” (Aug. 1), in addition to wonderful arts-related programs, it is lesser known that the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) also supports several science and environmental initiatives.

Seeds of Solidarity’s SOL Garden program for North Quabbin youth relies on funding from the MCC YouthReach program (and the generosity of individuals locally and beyond) to provide low-income teenagers with a high-quality, garden-based program after school and throughout the summer. Each year, we provide hundreds of North Quabbin high school students with ecology, sustainable-agriculture and renewable-energy presentations in their school science classes. Then, throughout each spring, summer and fall, a diverse group of 25 North Quabbin teens engage in authentic learning and critical conversations on topics such as food and climate change, soil ecology and food justice plus gain real skills for resiliency through growing and cooking healthy food, and design/building projects. They learn civic engagement as they prepare community meals for those in need, help create gardens for local day cares, and educate thousands about composting at the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, among a host of other activities.

Importantly, and amidst a social backdrop of increased opiate use, the program provides a safe setting that is a beacon of hope and lifeline to a positive future. For many of the 400 local youth who have participated in our program since 1999, SOL Garden is a focus of their college essay (often first in their family to go) and a significant volunteer and work experience helping qualify them for jobs and careers. We offer our curricula, resources and videos on our website ( to help launch similar programs regionally and nationally.

We do our best to keep our local legislators informed about SOL Garden and our other programs, and are very grateful for their efforts on the recent budget and override. This “arts” funding has the added benefit of supporting innovative science and environmental education, and creatively transforming the lives of many North Quabbin youth.


Deborah Habib, is director of the Seeds of Solidarity Education Center. Seeds of Solidarity re-imagines a self sustaining farm as a space for Creative Youth Development in Orange, MA and represents a strong cohort of programs in the sciences and humanities that are supported by YouthReach, STARS, and other MCC programs.

Innovation in Action: Three Case Studies from the Intersections of Arts and Social Justice

Innovation in Action coverHow can creative change makers walk their talk and more effectively enact the change they want to see in the world? What do innovation and adaptive change look like for organizations that have social change as their core mission? A collection of profiles released this month as part of EmcArts’ Innovation Labs explores these questions in their publication, “Innovation in Action: Three Case Studies from the Intersections of Arts and Social Justice.”

Featuring Massachusetts’ own The Theater Offensive, as well as Alternate ROOTS, and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, this publication examines the contours, possibilities and limitations of innovation and adaptive change at the intersection of arts and social justice.

The Theater Offensive entered the Innovation Lab to design a national organizing model to support and encourage Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth theaters nationally through
the Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA). PYTA’s mission is to “connect and support queer youth theater organizations, programs, and professionals committed to empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allied (LGBTQA) youth in North America.” Through the Innovation Lab process, the The Theater Offensive team explored these questions:

  1. How can youth leadership be operationally central to PYTA, and
  2. How can the national PYTA network take advantage of the capacities of the locally grounded organization (The Theater Offensive)?

Download the full publication.

Incorporating Behavioral Health Support for Students (and Staff)

“I’m working with a student whose drawings always depict someone getting shot or stabbed. What should I do?”

“The other day, a student told me that he’s thinking about coming out to his parents and he’s scared about how they’ll respond. I’m not sure what to tell him.”

“I think that one of my students may be homeless right now. Should I ask her about it?”

“One of the students in my class gets really angry and tearful any time that someone critiques his work. How can I help him and the other students handle critiques?”

ICA Teen Digital Photography students taking portrait photos of ICA Teen Slam Team, December 2014. Photo by Angela Mittiga.

In our work with youth, we encounter difficult issues on a weekly, if not daily (or hourly), basis. Working with students means dealing with situations that we may never have previously encountered. It means asking the question: “What should I do?” on a regular basis. Sometimes, the issues that students bring to us don’t seem to have an answer. In these situations, two heads are most always better than one. Consulting with colleagues can help guide your next steps and allow you to talk through an issue to gain a better understanding of it.

To help support students and staff, many schools have brought in behavioral health specialists, such as social workers, psychologists, and counselors. Depending on their areas of expertise, these specialists may be able to provide support in a number of areas, including:

  • Student behavioral health concerns (ex. depression and suicidal ideation, anxiety, trauma exposure, etc.)
  • Accessing local resources (ex. immigration services, family and child services, education advocates, etc.)
  • Crisis management (ex. addressing abuse/neglect concerns, providing support after trauma exposure, etc.)
  • Building social-emotional support systems (ex. helping develop structures and policies for helping staff address student’s behavioral health needs.)

How can after-school programs access support in addressing students’ behavioral health needs?

Last year, I began thinking about this question with the staff of Fast Forward, a teen program at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA). They have developed an education team that is passionate and knowledgeable about what they do, as well as highly engaged with and supportive of their students. As their programming has expanded and students have developed deeper relationships with staff, more issues that students are facing have come to the surface. To address these complex issues, the ICA reached out for a behavioral-health perspective.

Now, once every few weeks, the ICA education staff and I sit down together to discuss current concerns that they are facing in their work with students. Our conversations range from the staff’s work with individual students to issues around systems and policies. To give an example, three issues that we discussed in a recent meeting include:

  • A number of students were exposed to a violent incident in the community. How might the students respond to this event? What are typical responses to trauma exposure? When should staff be concerned about a student’s response and what should they do if they are concerned?
  • A student told a staff member that she was having suicidal thoughts. What next steps should the staff member take? What could the staff member have said when the student brought this up to her? What are signs of depression and suicidal ideation that staff can look out for?
  • One student has missed class for two weeks in a row. What is the ICA’s official policy around absences? Is it better to contact the student directly or to contact the student’s parents?

For each issue, we discuss the concern, think about the context of the issue, and consider possible ways to address it. We develop concrete next-steps for each problem and make sure to check in during the following weeks to determine whether any further steps are needed.

Our goal, in the partnership, is to support the education staff in their immediate work, as well as to build the team’s capacity for supporting their students’ social-emotional needs in the future. We supplement the meetings with phone calls and emails to address crisis situations, occasional trainings to develop skills that the staff would like to strengthen, and collaboration to build policies around supporting students. This work allows the education staff to focus on the mission of the ICA’s programming while also ensuring that they are meeting the needs of their students.

Have your staff faced issues that they are unsure how to address? Would a behavioral-health perspective be helpful in addressing your participants’ needs? If so, consulting with a social worker, counselor, or psychologist might be something to explore.

Melissa Rocklen is a clinical social worker and an artist. As a social worker, she has focused on working with students, families, and staff within the Boston Public School system. She has conducted individual and group therapy, taught lessons on social-emotional skill building, assisted people in accessing local resources, provided trainings for teachers, and built protocols for addressing student needs.

I Keep Coming Back Because it’s Like Coming Home Again

For those of us who have committed our lives to creative youth development work, we know that in practice, it is never simple or neat. Each individual’s story offers insight into a part of their journey – and ours. Each individual’s story emphasizes different aspects of ‘the work’. Here are three such stories:

Johanny standing before a Community Art Center mural on Massachusetts Avenue

Luis started at the Community Art Center when he was five. He is hard of hearing and had difficulty reading and writing at school. He was a naturally exuberant child who was often at odds with his very traditional Haitian grandmother. When Luis came to the Art Center, he discovered a love of theater and dance and a group of adults and kids who celebrate who he is. In the spring of 2012, Luis was voted onto our Youth Advisory Board and worked with his peers to complete a 100 foot mural along Massachusetts Avenue. Because of his flair for expressive speaking he was selected to address the audience about the mural making experience. One of his classroom teachers happened to walk by when Luis was reading the speech he wrote himself. She emailed the school principal the next day saying she had no idea what Luis was capable of. When I was forwarded a copy of that email I was proud of Luis, but that idea, that she “didn’t know what Luis was capable of” felt like a small tragedy. At the Community Art Center, Luis found a way to take in information and a way to express himself. He learned how he learns. Luis is now 14 and in his second year in our Teen Media Program. He still struggles in school, struggles to live up to his grandmother’s expectations, but in our program, he continues to succeed and has just started to direct his first film.

Tanisha’s mother died suddenly when she was just seven years old. She started at the Community Art Center a few months later. During program, Tanisha kept to herself. When she was nine, she was given a journal in class at the Art Center and instead of leaving hers behind in the classroom like the other girls, she carried it around with her and wrote often. Although her father and our staff were convinced she was grieving deeply, she never spoke about her mother – out loud or in her journal, which she eventually started sharing with one of our teachers. The year Tanisha turned 12, she wrote her first poem about her mother in one of our programs, which she turned into a song. When Tanisha took the stage to sing her song at our end of year celebration, she got through the first line and began to cry. Her father walked her off the stage but the audience kept cheering and eventually she walked back out and bowed. We don’t see Tanisha around the Art Center very often these days. She’s 15 now and her first years as a teen were full of difficulty. She comes by to visit every few weeks but isn’t officially signed up for a program. I see her all the time, though, around the neighborhood, walking alone or sitting on a bench, always carrying or writing in her journal.

When Raymond started our teen program, he was one of those kids who sat in the corner and watched the world go by. He was so quiet and seemingly disengaged, that we sometimes wondered why he kept coming. He seemed to like film making, but only really focused on the process when he was assigned the meticulous task of editing. During his second year with us, he was invited by staff to join our leadership group, DIYDS!! Crew – the group that curates and plans our Do It Your Damn Self!! National Youth Film Festival (DIYDS!!). It was in the quiet of the curation room that Raymond started talking. He had opinions about film. It turned out he spent much of his time outside of the Art Center watching movies. Raymond served on our Crew for the next two years and his senior year was asked to emcee the premiere screening of the film festival. Raymond got into college nearby but stayed in touch, coming back to help lead the DIYDS!! curation process. Raymond is 23 now, lives at home with his mom, and works hard to support his daughter, who just turned 2. I just got a call from him to be a reference for an entry level job at a small local museum. I gushed about him, of course, and am keeping my fingers crossed.

“I guess I keep coming back to the Art Center because it’s like coming home again. You know, like how a kid lets go of his mother’s hand but always comes back to hold it again when they need to.” When Ashley, who just aged up into our teen program made this statement recently, I thought now THAT is the real definition of creative youth development.

They keep coming back to it, and we keep coming back to it because somewhere in the process, we will find that mural event, that journal, that film critique that will make enough of a difference – help young people get their needs met and through that process find meaning for themselves, and give meaning to all of us.

Eryn Johnson is the Executive Director of Community Art Center whose mission is to cultivate an engaged community of youth whose powerful artistic voices transform their lives, their neighborhoods and their worlds. For over 80 years and for all but 10 weekdays of the year, the Art Center provides a second home to over 100 youth in Cambridge, MA.

A Participatory Understanding of Creativity

Attendees at the Sam Francis Foundation Creativity in Learning roundtable at the Isabella Stewart Gardner MuseumGuided by the  question of how can we foster creative capacity in our children?, the Sam Francis Foundation recently hosted a roundtable discussion at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to surface new perspectives on nurturing creativity in learning.

Although some familiar themes emerged in our conversation—the importance of material resources, access to mentorship, and the necessity of safe spaces in which to create—one aspect brought to light was especially compelling: participatory creativity.

The group wrestled with the ways in which popular notions of creativity (ie. the “lone genius”) create unintended barriers for participation for many young people. In response to this dilemma, Project Zero researcher and creativity scholar Edward Clapp argued that we should move away from an individually-based understanding of creativity toward a participatory understanding of creativity:

Maintaining an individual orientation towards creativity is harmful to young people in a few different ways. First, it suggests that some people are more or less creative than others, or that some people are creative whereas other people aren’t. This misconception puts students on false career tracks that don’t take advantage of their potential… in contemporary workplaces, we don’t bring lone geniuses together to solve complex problems, we bring teams of people together to solve problems. If we think of creativity in terms of ideas rather than individuals, we open up the possibility for multiple people with many abilities and perspectives to participate in the creative process.

Reframing our understanding of creativity as a social and distributed process, Clapp argues, is a necessary first step in ensuring that a greater number of students can access creative learning experiences and develop their creativity.

Given MCC’s commitment to ensuring that a greater number of our young people have access to creative youth development opportunities, we’re excited by this line of thinking and how participatory approaches to creativity may increase equity throughout the field of creative youth development.

Does this idea of a Participatory Understanding of Creativity resonate with you/your work?

Mass Creates 1st State Program to Support El Sistema Music Education

Last week, a crowd of nearly three hundred joined us at Artist for Humanity’s EpiCenter as we announced the launch of SerHacer, MCC’s newest grant program supporting creative youth development. SerHacer (To Make, To Be) will provide pilot grants, instruments, and technical support to the following youth music programs across Massachusetts:

  •  Berkshire Children and Families, a social service agency based in Pittsfield. Its Kids 4 Harmony program meets after school each day at Morningside Community School.
  • El Sistema at Conservatory Lab, a Dorchester charter school that provides extended day learning that includes 15 hours of music each week.
  • Bridge Boston Charter School, founded just three years ago and growing one grade per year at which every student makes music every day.
  • Worcester Chamber Music Society, operates an afterschool program known as Neighborhood Strings in Worcester.
  • Josiah Quincy School Orchestra Program, a Boston Public School, which offers an hour and a half of music, before and during the school day.
  • MusiConnects in Mattapan, home of the Boston Public Quartet, which works afterschool with students who would not otherwise have access to music education.
  • El Sistema Somerville, an afterschool program at the East Somerville Community School that is also supported by city government.
  • Also three organizations will receive planning grants to explore new programming: Cape Conservatory in Hyannis; Boston Conservatory, which is working to develop a choral program for young people on the autistic spectrum; and Berkshire Children and Families, which will expand its work to North Adams next year.

State Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg congratulated our grantees, and called SerHacer “another innovation for Massachusetts that will help our young people lead more active civic lives and discover their own potential.” Picking up on this thread, Robert Lynch, CEO at Americans for the Arts underscored the value of the arts, saying that, “kids today need the arts. They need the arts for better living, better academics and test scores, and for better coping with all of life’s challenges.”

To better understand the connections between musical studies and essential learning skills, SerHacer will also fund new research led by Ellen Winner and Sara Cordes at Boston College. Building upon a base of similar studies that have enhanced our understanding of the role of arts in youth development, this study will examine the strengthening of skills such as focus, planning, and problem-solving—skills that are crucial to success in and out of school.

See the Full Press Release.

Progress Report: Collective Action for Creative Youth Development

policy plank working group at National Summit on Creative Youth Development

The growing, national collective action around the emerging field of creative youth development continued last week at the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s conference.

Local and national partners reflected on the ways in which we can each support youth-centered programs in the arts, sciences, and humanities while also building capacity as a field—an imperative from the National Summit on Creative Youth Development hosted by MCC earlier this year.

As we tackled questions such as How might we capitalize on the strengths of individual leaders and programs, and How might joint efforts better serve youth?, the Guild’s Executive Director Jonathan Herman reminded us of the many creative youth development accomplishments that have unfolded this year:

And, First Lady Michelle Obama has adopted the term creative youth development when speaking about this work.

We’d like to hear from you: What are some accomplishments from your creative youth development work in 2014?

Creative Youth Development