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Youth Mentor Brings the SOUL

Artwork by Nic Bennett

Express Yourself mentor, Nic Bennett, has been hard at work completing his large scale exhibition funded by an Amplify Grant from the Mass Cultural Council.

Nic is an Express Yourself participant of 16 years and a long-time youth mentor –  the longest running participant in Express Yourself history. He is leading youth and junior mentors in creating two large panels inspired by the theme SOUL to be displayed outside Express Yourself’s studio. Using quilting patterns and a specific color palette, Nic designed a modular project to be individually painted by youth and then assembled into the final piece.

His project fosters youth leadership within the studio setting and brings public art to the Cummings Center in Beverly, MA. The exhibition will be presented during a studio reception and will be on full display in the Cummings Center after the show at the Boch Center Wang Theater on May 25.

This article originally appeared on Express Yourself’s site.

DYS Youth Voice What Matters at Annual Statewide Showcase

This post was adapted from the a piece by Kim Phan in the Mass Health and Human Services Blog.

Stage for the 2016 DYS Youth Showcase

“Voice What Matters”, the banner above the stage read, and that is exactly what the youth of the Mass Department of Youth Services (DYS) did. From paintings to sculptures, to videos, songs and dance, young people showed who they are and what matters to them. This year the DYS held the 4th Annual “Share Your Art, Share Your Voice!” Statewide Youth Showcase on June 16 at the Paramount Center at Emerson College.

The motivation for the investment in the arts by DYS came about because, as Peter Forbes, Department of Youth Services Commissioner, said, “Many of the youth are not happy to be with us (DYS), so we have to try to figure out what they’re interested in and use that interest as a hook for the change process. Many of the youth have unbelievable artistic talent, but they often don’t have exposure to the arts to see that, so this is something the agency put forward.”

The showcase kicked off with a youth art exhibition, with the proceeds going directly to the artists. Walking through the exhibit, excited chatter of the attendees could be heard as they eyed the pieces they were going to purchase. “They’re going fast,” said one onlooker. “I know they always do,” said another.

DYS Youth Showcase art exhibit

A self-portrait on display that had sold within 15 minutes of the exhibit opening was entitled “Purple Stands for Loyalty.” The artist, Kevin, wrote in his description, “I feel good that I did this self-portrait. Purple is my favorite color.”

Another artist wrote this about her painting “Look Closely”: “Pretty much everyone has a different perspective, a different eye. For this, trees make me feel calmed down, like I’m in a forest alone.”

Following the exhibit, performing artists hit the stage. The performances, while entertaining, also highlighted the realities of life. A youth named Xavier gave a powerful rendition of the “Hath not a Jew Eyes?” speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a performance which had the audience in thunderous applause. A story by a youth named Dion described the struggle of reality vs. perception, and what he called the “Levels to this Frontin’” meaning what the world sees on the outside is not always what it is truly like on the inside. A group of girls – Jessica, Clarisine, Cheyenne, Zorelys, and Irianis – performed a stepping routine with rhythms that resonated throughout the theater.

My Name is Eury Ortiz & This is My Story

Eury OrtizI arrived in Boston from the Dominican Republic when I was 13. No one told me I was going to a new country until the day before I left. When I got to Boston, I lived with my grandmother in a housing project in South Boston. I remember it was the end of November, and I didn’t have any warm clothes. I didn’t speak a word of English.

Right away I got expelled from school for my involvement in a fight. Fighting was a common activity for me. I had a lot of anger and the streets gave me a place to express it. I was the type of kid who, if I didn’t like the way you looked at me, there would probably be a fight.

Then, a friend of mine told me about a dance program at Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF).

Once there I learned Latin dance and began to feel more and more comfortable. I started to learn English. I still had anger, but people accepted me, and if I was in a bad mood, they took the time to talk to me. Soon, I was performing dance all over Boston, and I was surrounded with positive people – teens and adults.

Eury Ortiz dancing

HSTF staff pushed me on my academics, but I still couldn’t graduate on time. The summer after 12th grade, my HSTF mentor worked with me and helped me complete high school. I started taking classes at Bunker Hill Community College, and a week into the semester, I had another incident on the streets. I was going to a party in the Lenox Street projects, and I got shot. I hit the ground to avoid a hail of bullets, but one of them caught my leg. Even though I lost a lot of blood, I was able to recover.

I realized I had to set my priorities straight, once and for all. I had to change my focus, so I threw myself into work, school, and dance.

At Bunker Hill, HSTF continued to support me through their college success program. They checked in with me every week. They even came to Bunker Hill and went to the financial aid office with me in order to get me the help I needed. I am in my final year at Bunker Hill. Next year I will attend Mass College of Art and Design to major in graphic design. Someday, my dream is to own my own graphic design company. Meanwhile, I dance. I am a member of the professional Mambo Revelation dance company. I also teach dance to middle school kids.

Published with permission from the Hyde Square Task Force.

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.