The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, given by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, is the nation’s highest honor for out-of-school arts and humanities programs that celebrate the creativity of America’s young people, particularly those from underserved communities. This award recognizes and supports excellence in programs that open new pathways to learning, self-discovery, and achievement. Each year, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards recognize 12 outstanding programs in the United States, from a wide range of urban and rural settings.
I 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.
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.
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.
Through their Youth Arts Action Initiative, MASSCreative partners with 18 youth arts groups to provide advocacy training and opportunities for participants to effect change in their communities. Their youth partners represent a broad spectrum of disciplines – from music, theatre, dance, and visual art – and come from diverse backgrounds representing communities around Greater Boston and beyond.
Young artists are already drawn to advocacy. All they need are the right tools to make the political case that arts matter. At MASSCreative, we’ve seen this advocacy firsthand.
In the last few months, the Youth Arts Action Coalition has convened three times, and began to steadily build an advocacy movement in Massachusetts fueled by young artists. In February, our partners came together at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston for a day of training and collaboration that would spark future advocacy. To kick off the day, Sara Stackhouse of Actors’ Shakespeare Project led an exercise that showed us how to tell our stories through the political organizing lens of the Marshall Ganz model. In this exercise, participants took time to understand their own role in the arts and cultural community by learning to tell three stories: ‘of self,’ ‘of us,’ and ‘of now’. Through this model, youth got the chance to tell their own story, connect to the values and interests of their peers, and inspire urgency in what we must do to make change happen.
This exercise revealed to us that tomorrow’s advocacy leaders were right there in the room. For our young artists who are so deeply involved in their own communities, envisioning themselves as part of an advocacy movement was the next logical step.
Next up, it was time to make waves at the State House. Our Youth Arts Action partners – now well-equipped to make their case – joined MASSCreative and 250 other arts advocates at #ArtsMatter Advocacy Day on March 25.
Among the crowd, young people stood out. They marched with pride and conviction in our #ArtsMatter march, turning heads and rallying the troops to make a difference at the State House. When we met with our legislators to talk about arts and cultural impact, it was their stories that helped drive home the message that arts aren’t just nice, but necessary. Their active participation in legislative meetings all over the State House was proof enough of this impact.
Later on, our youth partners took their advocacy a step further by doing what they do best: sharing their art. Youth leader Nick from Zumix took the mic and shared a rap about the impact of arts and culture in their own lives.
With heads nodding along in the audience, Nick made his point clear. The arts matter. They matter in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, in all spaces occupied by youth. And with a few bars, Nick says it all:
“World leaders are not that; Imagination rules.
So stop taking music and art out of our schools.
I don’t want to hear that it’s not important
You should forfeit that argument; we’re not standing dormant.”
Drew Esposito is a Program Associate at MASSCreative. MASSCreative is proud to collaborate with 18 Youth Arts Action partners: Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Artists for Humanity, Boston Arts Academy, Boston Children’s Chorus, Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, Hyde Square Task Force, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, Institute of Contemporary Art, Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Mayor’s Youth Council of Boston, Raw Art Works, Sociedad Latina, Teen Empowerment, The Theater Offensive, The Urbano Project, Urbanity Dance, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and ZUMIX.
Maureen Finnerty relishes the moments in which the audience is shocked by what the performers can do. She cites many instances in which audiences gasped when the performers abandoned pairs of crutches or relinquished their wheelchairs during the performance, “You can sense that people wonder if they should get up and help [the performer]. It’s the fact that they can’t, we’re on stage and that shows people just how much anyone can do.”
Maureen remembers parents who could not have imagined their child as a dancer, students who ask her to call their teachers to explain that they can physically do much more, and students who understand that being stared it can be ok.
“People [are] looking at them, but now it’s for the right reasons.” Indeed, for Maureen the real reward is seeing how the attitudes of the performers change about themselves. The audience’s misinterpretation of the performance’s intent is negligible. “[The students] come away with a different idea about what the pathways for people with disabilities are,” she explains, “the audience will have their own perspective on the performance, and they will have their own perspective on my disability.”
According to performer and movement educator Maureen Finnerty, the audience often misunderstands the performers.
“I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, ‘Wow. I really loved what that piece said about disability.’ But the piece had nothing to do with disability.” When asked if the audience’s misinterpretation of her students’ performance bothers her, Maureen is quick to explain that, “… we’re giving a present to the audience. Everyone will unwrap it differently.”
For Maureen, the beauty and power the ensemble members bring to their performance stems from their personal investment in the roles they craft. She says the investment happens because the students at Access to Theater are never told their characters. “We choose [our character] and through rehearsals [we learn] the impact of our words and movement before we’ve even performed it.”
And the end result? “The parents always cry. I don’t get it,” she laughs.
Despite her self-assured way of talking about her experience as a performer and an educator, Maureen was not always comfortable in the realm of creative movement. Only after joining Access to Theater at a friend’s suggestion did Maureen begin to explore movement as a form of self-expression.
“My only idea about movement came from my physical therapy,” she explains, recalling her initial hesitation to learn movement techniques. “When I started [at Access to Theater] I realized [movement] was no longer a painful thing I did for physical therapy. It could be beautiful.”
Through many years as a student, an intern, and now a staff member at Access to Theater, Maureen has come to see movement as a tool for self-discovery. “It helps people accept who they are. [Access to Theater] gave them confidence.”
As the Movement Director for Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program, Maureen Finnerty teaches children and adults with and without disabilities that “everyone has a place in theater and that each person enriches the creative process when he/she keeps an opened mind.” She has been a resident artist for VSA Massachusetts for seven years and has assisted with workshops that focus on teaching the elements of improvisational theater to participants of all ages and abilities; included in these workshops has been the concept of access for all through universal design. She also performs in community movement productions.
Charge up for the new year. On January 16, 2014 Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion hosts La Lengua del Poder (The Language of Power), a showcase of young people freeing their voices through visual art, theater, music, movement, and poetry. Free. 6-9pm. Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, 85 West Newton St., Boston. Part of the YouthReach 20th anniversary celebration.
Luis Sanchez, then (2008, age 14) and now (age 23). Luis danced with Ritmo en Accíon, a dance troupe sponsored by Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, MA, for 3 years beginning in 2005. Recently, Harvard Graduate School of Education student Lisa Yolansky had an opportunity to sit with Luis as he reflected on his years with Ritmo “back in the day.”
Lisa: How did you get so involved in Ritmo en Accíon?
Luis: I used to take classes at the Brookline Community Center, and one of the people I loved taking classes with was the Ritmo en Accíon choreographer, Burju Hurturk. She asked me to join Ritmo, which was just around the corner from my house. Over time my involvement got bigger. I actually got to perform at the White House and at a Red Sox game.
How did the opportunities to dance at the White House and at Fenway impact you?
We were like, “Wow, we are actually important. We are really doing something huge.” I think that really made me feel like I could accomplish anything, and that I could accomplish something with dance even though not everyone felt like dance was that important.
Wasn’t the work at Ritmo viewed as important?
Yes and no. A lot of people undervalue the arts and the aid the arts give. Specifically to teenagers, you know? During my teenage years, everything was awkward, and I don’t think people realized how much stability the dancing gave me.
What have you been doing since graduating high school and leaving Ritmo?
I have a lot of projects going on, but my work at Charlestown Community Center is what I am most excited about. It brings back memories of what I got as a high school student out of Ritmo en Accíon and what I can have the teenagers I’m working with get out of my program. I am one of the dance coordinators and I’m working with other young people to establish a range of arts programs. That way we can build the students’ skills and tell the community, “This is what your young people can do.”
You said you want your students to get similar things out of your program as you got out of Ritmo en Accíon. What things did you get from your work in the arts?
The thing that Ritmo en Accíon did very well was providing us with an art that we loved, but also showing us that we had to work hard, have discipline and be responsible—that we can get good results for the effort that we’re putting in. And that carries over to school because if you put in that same kind of effort you’ll get good grades, get scholarships, etc. It was also really great to be a youth member of Hyde Square Task Force and to go out and do something for the community—teach classes, paint peace signs, and just being able to use my passion to help other people.
Do you have any advice for people working with youth in the arts?
Always take the opinions of the youth members seriously. Even though [the program leaders] have the broader prospective, the youth have the inside scoop on how to make it better and on what they want to get out of it.
What do you want policy makers and funders in the arts to know?
I want them to know that in arts programs in general, there are so many benefits. The United States in particular is really missing out on using the arts. All these other countries are using the arts to prevent crime, increase motivation, and so on. We are missing out because in the U.S. people say, “oh, it’s just an arts program” instead of looking at the powerful good the arts do.