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:
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.