Championing Creative Youth Development

by Gustavo Dudamel and Anita Walker

Look and listen closely to the student ensemble from Boston String Academy and you experience something profound. You hear music, of course: works from the classical repertoire played at extraordinarily high levels. You see learning too—rapt attention, mathematical precision, deft coordination. Peer more deeply and there’s still more: creativity, connection, community.

This is the power of the ensemble under the El-Sistema-inspired model of music education. Led by highly trained, caring teachers, a rich curriculum, and challenging opportunities for public performance, Boston String Academy students and thousands like them across Massachusetts are redefining what art means to young people, particularly those struggling against poverty and other socioeconomic barriers. They come to understand themselves not only as musicians and performers, but as citizens who matter and can make a difference in their community. This model of learning transcends music and is being adopted in the visual arts, theater, history, and science. It’s called creative youth development and it is drawing attention from educators and policymakers across the nation.

We have come to be champions for creative youth development from very different places: One of us was steeped in El-Sistema from childhood, under its founder and his mentor, Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, who later initiated a ground-breaking cooperation between El Sistema in Venezuela and the New England Conservatory. The other saw El Sistema’s power on visits to South America and other US cities with NEC, then undertook to plant its seeds more deeply and broadly here in Massachusetts.

Those seeds continue to blossom. Mass Cultural Council now supports more than 22 El-Sistema inspired music programs across the Commonwealth through its SerHacer Initiative—from Lawrence Public Schools’ first-even string orchestra, to Kids 4 Harmony, grounded in a social service agency called Berkshire Children and Families that serves some of that region’s most vulnerable youth. At the same time the Council continues a decades-long investment in dozens of creative youth development initiatives that reach youth through other disciplines—from The Care Center in Holyoke, where history and literature open teen mothers to new ideas and new life possibilities, to Provincetown Art Association and Museum’s ArtReach, where teens learn about themselves and the world around them through drawing, painting, and digital artmaking.

On April 8, we joined state legislators, philanthropic and civic organizations, and cultural leaders at WBUR’s new CitySpace to honor these efforts and others with the 2019 Commonwealth Awards, Massachusetts’ highest honors in the arts and culture. These Awards remind us that even amidst our highly politicized and polarized world, art and music unite us. Leonard Bernstein, our great native son whose centennial we just celebrated, put it this way: “It is the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams.” It is true: everyone who contributes to the creation of beauty in this world helps carve out the vital time and space for people of all walks of life, all cultures and diverse political views to dream together. That is the power of music. And we need music today more than ever.” 

Massachusetts was not just the birthplace of the American Revolution, it is also at the heart of this nation’s cultural revolution. This state is renowned for creating and fostering some of the most esteemed institutions – both large and small – in the arts and education. And from such institutions come ideas and creative experiences that make people talk, think, and feel. The people and organizations of Massachusetts have brought joy and passion to millions of people, and helped fundamentally shift the paradigms of our social, intellectual and artistic understanding.

Let’s make sure we continue listening to each other and working together to foster a world that cultivates, embraces and empowers the arts. A world without them is unacceptable – and unimaginable.

Gustavo Dudamel is Music Director of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra & Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Anita Walker is Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency supporting the arts, humanities, and sciences.

Mass Cultural Council’s SerHacer program is supported by the Dudamel Foundation.

Podcast: Out Youth Theater – Revelatory Experience for Performers and Audience

Evelyn Francis. Photo by Joel Benjamin.On the Mass Cultural Council’s podcast, Creative Minds Out Loud, we spoke with Evelyn Francis, Interim Artistic Director at The Theater Offensive.

She discusses their youth program – a national model for creative youth development – where young people not only create original work and share it back to the community, but are true partners in developing a range of expanded opportunities within the program.

Listen to the episode.

Read the transcript.

Check out other episodes featuring Creative Youth Development leaders.

Legislative Roundtable on Quality ASOST Experiences for Youth

State and local officials speak at Lynn roundtable.

Man speaks at Lynn roundtable.

Earlier this month, RAW Art Works hosted a unique roundtable discussion with Lynn’s Mayor Thomas McGee, State Senator Brendan Crighton, and State Representative Peter Capano, alongside many creative youth development organizations, youth leaders, and other voices from the field, on the role of arts and culture in providing quality afterschool and out-of-school experiences for young people.

With Senator Crighton as the co-chair of the Afterschool and Out-of-School Time (ASOST) Coordinating Council it was a fruitful exchange of expertise and ideas, and underscored Mass Cultural Council’s commitment and dedication to improve the lives of young people.

As expressed in the ASOST’s report, ”The research is clear. Children who attend quality afterschool programs do better in school, get better grades, have fewer behavioral issues, have higher graduation rates, and are better equipped for college and career. Yet for every child in an afterschool program, two are waiting to get in. What we must do as a Commonwealth is invest in afterschool and summer learning as part of a full education agenda to give our kids the greatest opportunity for success.”

Sitting at RAW, its walls covered in fantastic artwork expertly made by local youth, these arguments deeply resonated. Thanks to Anita Walker’s facilitation, challenges, opportunities, and impromptu alliances were forged as the assembled crowd rallied for the young people in their communities, and highlighted the potential that lies within creative youth development investments.

We are proud to convene roundtables like these across the state to connect our local and state elected officials with the efforts of the cultural sector for the benefit of our most vulnerable communities.

Woman shares at Lynn roundtable.

Congrats 2019 Commonwealth Award Finalists

Commonwealth Awards logoLast week we announced the finalists for the 2019 Commonwealth Awards, which honor exceptional achievement in the arts, humanities, and sciences. The Commonwealth Award winners will be announced at a ceremony for the finalists and their supporters Monday, April 8 at WBUR’s new CitySpace.

Delivering the keynote address at this year’s ceremony will be renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel will be in Massachusetts to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Congratulations to the finalists serving youth:

    • Boston String Academy, for its exceptional creative youth development work inspired by El Sistema – an effective intensive music education philosophy that utilizes classical music as a vehicle for personal transformation and social change.
    • Eileen McCaffery, Community Music School of Springfield, for her dedication to changing lives through music. Community Music School brings together people of different ages, abilities, cultural backgrounds and economic circumstances to make music in an environment that respects diversity and encourages creativity.
    • Elevated Thought, for providing Greater Lawrence’s youth with opportunities that encourage artistic expression as the means for creative solutions to social issues through creative youth development.
    • Provincetown Art Association & Museum, for its unique legacy of groundbreaking exhibitions and programming, passion for removing barriers to participation, and commitment to engaging young people through the visual arts.
    • The Care Center, for bringing the power of education, arts and culture to youth and their families in Holyoke. This creative youth development program is helping to break the cycle of poverty and create an economically vibrant city through a rich, humanities-based curriculum for teen mothers.

See the full list of finalists.

Nano-Interview with Betsy Hinkle of musiConnects

Betsy HinkleName: Betsy Hinkle
Organization: musiConnects
Title: Founder, Resident Musician and Curriculum Design
Music Genre: Chamber Music
Years in the Field: 20

What do you do at musiConnects?
After founding the organization in 2007 and being its only director for 8 years, currently I perform as a violinist in our chamber music performances, and I teach private violin lessons, Chamber music and a K2 String instrument readiness class. I design (with a collaborative approach) and help implement all of our private lesson and chamber music curriculum.

Why do you do what you do?
I firmly believe that access to the highest quality music education and performances is a right, not a privilege. I also firmly believe that to fully reap the benefits that music education has to offer, it must be done in a tailored, one-on-one approach, and that chamber music is the best model for young children to learn self-expression, peer leadership, and community development skills.

What comes easiest to you in this work?
It seems that ideas for teaching approaches and solving problems seem to flow out of me. Sometimes my ideas get changed right after I try them, but there are always new ones to take their place. I also love when some ideas stick and continue to work, so I try and find ways to keep these ideas solidified and continued, by helping to make them second nature for teachers. I also love hearing others’ approaches and identifying new approaches that work, and adopting them.

What challenges you in this work?
Going with the flow when the unexpected happens: a student you’ve invested so much in, and whom you communicate so well with, just quits all of a sudden. When an audience or community is completely different than you imagined and your wonderful planning doesn’t get used at that moment.

What does it mean to your community that you do this work?
Students whose previous experience in school or other activities wasn’t positive are suddenly revered, praised, role models. It takes a few years for some community members to trust that what we bring will be positive or lasting or relevant. But when they do, their commitment to the work takes on a new role, as collaborator.

How do you blow off steam?
Watch TV, knit, do yoga, walk or hike, cook and bake.

Whose work in the Creative Youth Development field do you admire and why?
Sebastian Ruth of CMW, he was a pioneer in this work, and who directly inspired musiConnects. Also Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music – a collective and long standing organization where chamber music ideals are really practiced in all aspects of the organization and passed along to all who encounter it.

What music do you like listen to (if even a little too loudly)?
Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pixies, Crooked Still, AC Newman, and the New Pornographers

Do you live with any animals?
One cat and I’d love to get a dog. Do my two kids and husband count?

The unauthorized biography of your life is titled:
Slowly but Surely: the search for order amongst chaos inside the mind of a creative perfectionist

What’s next?
I’m going to continue to create, test, hone, and eventually publish my curriculum which includes a systematic approach to working with kids (violin, viola, cello) with few home-based supports and a graded chamber music curriculum with original compositions and arrangements for similar students.

“La Mesa” Project

Check out META Fellow Nicolas Perez’s “La Mesa” project:

“La Mesa” is a video series that is inspired by NPR’s Tiny Desk series. The goal of this video series is to provide a recording and performance space for rising artist to share their music. There is a brown table (la mesa) in the video that all performer sign at the end of their performance. This table serves as a symbol of community amongst all of the performers who use this space.

The first episode features youth from Hyde Square Task Force’s music program performing an arrangement of a song they learned during band rehearsals.

See all 3 episodes of “La Mesa” on YouTube

Investing in Organizations to Pursue an Artistic Risk

Creative Youth Development is a dynamic field of practice, utilizing the resources of teaching artists and organizations to better serve its target audience. To do this effectively, programming and delivery is in constant evolution to further engagement and impact.

Inevitably, this dynamism makes it difficult for programs to fit certain funding models, leaving gaps that take far too long to be addressed.  On the other side, funders have very specific targets and models that need to be met for organizations to be eligible, which in turn might stunt the advancement of programs and their capacity to reach new audiences and all together experiment with their medium. To address this, Barr Foundation and The Klarman Family Foundation shifted the paradigm by establishing an artistic risk fund with the purpose of providing risk capital for projects that would take organizations out of their comfort zones.  The fund supports projects that have the potential to change how organizations work.

To document the journey and impact of their seven funded projects, the two foundations commissioned a series of videos.  With  personal stories from teaching artists and program participants as well as leadership, these documentaries are evidence of how both sides of the equation, program and funder, can work and stimulate each other to find new avenues of impact and growth.

Creative Youth Development

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