Category Archives: Voices

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.

Access to Opportunities

Donna Folan Artistic Director, Until Tomorrow Productions and artistic creator of Access to TheatreAs the YouthReach Initiative winds up its 20th anniversary, Seen & Heard asked Donna Folan, cofounder of Access to Theatre, a program of Partners for Youth with Disabilities, to reflect on the impact of the state’s investment and her aspirations for the initiative going forward.

For 20 years, Access to Theater (ATT) has provided young people with fully accessible afterschool workshops, summer institutes, one-to-one mentor pairings, peer leadership opportunities, and countless performances for the Boston area community. ATT has also provided opportunities to work with artists with and without disabilities as mentors and collaborators. YouthReach was ATT’s first and only consistent annual funder for those 20 years. It is hard to image the program’s long success without this consistent support.

YouthReach serves as the strongest model of how to create and support youth-driven programming. The initiative has supported innumerable opportunities for young people to discover personal expression, and has challenged its grantees to maintain the highest standards of excellence in programming. At the same time, the program has been responsive to adapting to the needs of its grantees. YouthReach funding has helped to build a community of practice among a diverse set of programs across the state. As a result, organizations have been able to develop programs that are safe and nurturing environments for the people they serve. In many cases I believe YouthReach has saved lives with their support of these safe-havens for vulnerable young people.

In the 20 years to come, it is my hope that arts and cultural programs receive the true respect they deserve. I encourage the MCC to help YouthReach-funded organizations continue to develop a deeper understanding of physical and programmatic accessibility and how it can be integrated into each individual program.

YouthReach programs have produced many talented and knowledgeable emerging artists. It is important now to have places for these young artists to rehearse and collaborate as they take the lessons learned to the next level. Our communities and society will ultimately benefit from the advancement of these experienced artists, thanks to YouthReach and their partners past, present, and future.

Donna Folan is the Artistic Director of Until Tomorrow Productions. She was cofounder and Artistic Director of Access to Theatre, a program of Partners for Youth with Disabilities, which provides young people with disabilities and those without disabilities the opportunity to come together to create original theater and other forms of art that reflect their individual and collective viewpoints.

Full Circle

Representative Sarah Peake, Lynn Stanley, and Arts Foundation of Cape Cod Executive Director Kevin HowardRecently, Lynn Stanley, Curator of Education at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, was named Arts Educator of the Year by the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod. Following are her remarks upon receiving the award.

Picture it: I am five and drawing a picture in my kindergarten class. Lacking the color pink, I put a layer of red crayon down, then find a piece of white chalk and apply that on top. As it turns out, I’ve taken Miss Roger’s chalk. Worse, the red crayon has stained the chalk. I’m afraid that if she finds out, I’ll be in big trouble. Instead, when she sees what I’ve done, she is delighted that I know how to mix colors. Thus I become aware that I know something that not everyone else knows—and instead of punishment I’ve been seen and understood.

When considering the roles that art and education have played in my own life, what comes to mind is this 50-year-old memory—one of the first I can associate with being valued in the world as a creative being. I could say that it is because I work with children, teens, and young adults as an administrator and teacher at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum that the connection to that 5-year-old me continues to be alive and present in me today. But really, I think it’s the other way around—that feeling of being valued as a creative young person is at the foundation of my life as an educator. I doubt that Miss Rogers knew the importance of her actions that day.

Fast forward ten years. I’m 15 and as a teenager I’ve experienced things I can’t yet put language to. Instead, I engage in all kinds of risky behavior—I skip school, take drugs, hitchhike, and run away from home. As my grades take a nosedive and my parents struggle to understand what has become of their once comprehensible daughter, art remains a place where I can make meaning, find meaning, and be valued. Art has become a way of being and a lifeline for me.

I don’t know what the fifteen year old I was would think if she could see your recognition of my efforts today. But I can guess that there would be a few school officials—the administrators who hauled me into the office for any number of offences or sentenced me to what we called the “rubber room” during school suspensions, and the teachers who tried to reach me and failed—yes, I’m guessing there would be a few who would be shocked that I survived my youth and have actually joined their ranks.

So I stand here before you today as a reminder to every hard-working educator and arts administrator that you can not possibly know all the good you do or the changes you enact in the lives of the young people you work with. Some of your work will not bear fruit for many years. But I’m living proof that your efforts—along with the love and compassion that fuels them—bring about change that is real and infinitely good.

Twelve years ago I joined the staff of PAAM. Some of you have heard me say that when I started working on out-of-school youth programs I had no idea what I was doing. This is not false modesty. However, what I lacked in knowledge I made up for in the desire to provide a safe, accessible, creative environment for all kinds of kids. I was lucky–very lucky–to find myself in the right place at the right time, among colleagues and leaders who supported my efforts. I thank the very gifted artists who have made PAAM’s programs exemplary. My parents for their love, and for my mother’s example that one never stops learning. My partner Tracey Anderson—whose brilliance illuminates every aspect of my work as an artist, an educator, and a human being. Chris McCarthy for her courage and her far-reaching vision—thanks to you we have a beautiful museum and museum school that youth can grow and flourish in—may it continue for another 100 years. I thank the Massachusetts Cultural Council—I doubt that PAAM’s youth programs would have gotten off the ground without the support I received from the MCC—and I’m not just talking about financial support—every step of the way. I want to thank anyone and everyone who has ever given a cent to support arts education—your money is well spent and an investment in the best of all possible worlds. Representative Sarah Peake and Senator Dan Wolf for their commitment to the arts. Kevin Howard and the staff of the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod.

Finally I want to thank the young people in our lives who take the biggest risks, the most courageous risks, when they forge into the unknown and make something new.

Work from PAAM’s ArtReach program will be on view in Doric Hall at the Massachusetts State House May 12-16. Join Lynn, the young artists, and others for a reception May 14, 3:30-5:00 PM to help advance Collective Action for Youth: An Agenda for Progress Through Creative Youth Development – a dynamic new policy agenda created during the recent National Summit on Creative Youth Development.

Beautiful Moves

Performance by Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program

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.

Self Portrait by “Tommy”

Self Portrait by Doug

I bought this piece last June at an amazing art show at The State House sponsored by the Mass. Department of Youth Services. (“Tommy” is an assumed name, to protect the artist’s anonymity.)

The piece drew me from across the room because it was familiar—it reminded me of so many young men I see on the T and around my neighborhood.  I was also drawn by the drama of the color choices, and I was moved by the emotions revealed in those eyes.  I knew I had to purchase the piece, though, when I read Tommy’s simple artist’s statement:

“I was really intimidated by this project, but I finally finished it.”

I love that I live in a state where there are art teachers within the Department of Youth Services.  And I love that Tommy’s art teacher pushed him to do something really hard, and that the art teacher knew he could accomplish it, even if Tommy didn’t.  And I love that Tommy stuck with it.  But most of all, I love that Tommy had the courage to admit he had been intimidated.

Giving young people the opportunities and supports to succeed at things they couldn’t imagine they could accomplish—isn’t this what powerful youth development programs accomplish?  And in the arts, the added benefit is that young people produce a powerful connection with others, whether they know it or not.

Tommy was able to work through his fears to create something very strong and beautiful.  Now, hanging on my wall, I can look at Tommy’s work to encourage me to push through my own fears and get a difficult job done.

Thanks, Tommy, wherever you are.

Impact: A Two-Way Street

Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial
Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial

Pittsfield’s Juvenile Resource Center (JRC), a collaboration between the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and the Pittsfield Public Schools, provides education, casework, counseling, and employment services to young people at high risk of dropping out of school. With the help of YouthReach funding, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) launched a partnership in 2012 with the JRC, using theatre tools to build confidence and communication skills while placing the young people in jobs throughout Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. Kate McGuire, Artistic Director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, reflects on the partnership’s first year:

In the theatre, we learn to listen. For me, I was able to hear and understand the nature of these kids’ lives and learn about the challenges they face minute to minute.

At the beginning, there was so much noise.  They were loud, and so aggressive towards each other in their language and sometimes, physically. By the end of the semester, we all learned to attend to each other, to listen more carefully. Order and calm and a real sense of joy set in.

The first week of the program, we went to see a movie. It was a disaster.  I was amazed they didn’t get thrown out as they could not keep quiet, keep still, or keep their hands off each other.

Over the course of six months, we used actor-training exercises to encourage each young person to find new tools of expression and at the same time, sharpen our awareness of ourselves as part of an ensemble, a community.  Meanwhile, BTG staff worked with each participant’s interests and ambitions to build custom internship experiences for each.

In the final week of this first year, we all went out to dinner. The youth were polite, well spoken, and we might as well have been celebrating Christmas. There was such a warmth and genuine care among us all.

We had accomplished something remarkable, and we were all aware that each one of us had changed, grown, and learned to care about each other and each others’ lives in profound ways.

The Colonial Theatre must be comfortable for everyone to walk through. We have succeeded with these young people.  By the end, the kids were not a part of the BTG. They were integrated into the entire organization. Three of them continued through the summer:  one in the box office, one onstage for Peter Pan, and one providing technical support. JRC staff noted the value in the relationship, and the region’s Sheriff lauded our work to one of our trustees.

Years ago I entered the theatre with the belief that we could transform lives profoundly. This work is serving that belief.   What I did not know was how deeply I could still be impacted by the power of the theatre to help and change lives.  I am grateful to the young people I have worked with through the JRC, and I can’t wait to meet a new class later this fall!

Kate McGuire
Artistic Director and CEO
Berkshire Theatre Group