Category Archives: Poetry

Listen Deeply, Move Boldly: How The Care Center Builds Community

The following piece originally appeared in Mass Cultural Council’s Power of Culture blog, and was written by Mina Kim, Käthe Swaback, and Timothea Pham.

Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

Inside an unassuming Victorian-era building, just west of downtown Holyoke, is one of the nation’s most distinctive creative community development initiatives: The Care Center. It is an example of what can happen when culture and creativity form the foundation to dismantle systemic barriers for individuals, as well as communities.

Enter The Care Center, and on every wall, there is art by the students. Poems that probe the multiplicity of humanity’s realities fill the hallways. Drawings, photographs, and paintings are thoughtfully arranged and reflect various facets of each individual’s personality, journey, or a moment in time. Reminders of upcoming deadlines with the Department of Transitional Services, illustrated alphabet posters for toddlers, and notices of upcoming events hang all around. Young women’s voices, sighs, exclamations, and laughter float through the building, as each is a part of a transformative effort that seeks to break the cycle of poverty.

The Care Center opened in 1986 with the mission to provide resources for teen mothers and their families. 100% of the women are from low-income households, and 94% are women of color. In a culture that stigmatizes teen pregnancy and condemns young mothers, in particular, young mothers of color, The Care Center offers a different model of working with these youth. “20 years ago, we made an intentional shift,” said Anne Teschner, Director of The Care Center, while describing the evolution of the Center’s program development. Over time it moved from a more traditional social service organization, toward one that embraces the power of arts, education, and culture to build a different support system that offers greater socioeconomic mobility.

Challenging Assumptions

“We meet the young woman where they’re at,” explained Jenna Sellers, Director of Support Services. Rather than merely trying to level the playing field, The Care Center understands each individual requires specialized care respective of varying personalities and experiences. Being aware of the multi-layered context young mothers face is important as well, as the labyrinth of obtaining public resources for teen mothers can be long and arduous. Teschner described the many conversations over the years she had with the Department of Transitional Assistance as she lobbied to allow young mothers on assistance to have access to higher education through the completion of the Associate Degree.

“There’s an assumption that if you live in poverty, you don’t need intellectual stimulation or cultural access and, at the worst, don’t deserve it,” Teschner said as she and Ana Rodriguez, Director of Education, discussed the stereotypes society holds with regard to who is worthy, and who is not. “It’s important that these girls are celebrated…that they feel they’re as good as anyone else,” Rodriguez added.

Young women rowing
“Rowing is like my second family; the first is The Care Center,” shares Crystal who serves as coxswain for the rowing team that is a part of Rowing Strong, Rowing Together, a partnership between The Care Center, Mount Holyoke College, and Holyoke Rows. “It’s a stress reliever that helps us let go of everything we’re holding onto as we work together and help each other,” adds fellow rower AJ. Teschner introduced rowing and a robust academic curriculum to The Care Center’s programming after reviewing the types of activities, classroom setting, and programming offered at many private schools across the U.S. (Image: The Care Center.)

Teschner is not afraid to blaze trails and carries the advice of, “allow yourself as an organization to be bold and on the edge of discovery. This is what really brings in the oxygen.” Back in 1993, Teschner took a deep breath and launched the YouthReach Initiative at the Mass Cultural Council, a first of its kind state grant program that supported creative youth development through a social justice lens. YouthReach recognizes youth as agents of change, understanding them as a resource and partner in creating healthy communities. This acknowledgment of youth as assets within their communities has carried on in Teschner’s work, as she has consistently pushed the boundaries of perceptions around underserved youth.

In 2016, the Center, together with Bard College, launched the first college for women whose studies have been cut short due to pregnancy or parenthood. Known as the Bard Microcollege Holyoke, women who graduate from this program receive an Associate of Arts degree. Students often enter the Microcollege after completing The Clemente Course in the Humanities, an award-winning program, developed by Bard College and supported by Mass Humanities, that enables underserved and marginalized individuals to receive college credits while being introduced to works of literature, moral philosophy, art history, and critical thinking and writing. Both programs act as a gateway toward the pursuit of higher education, as is evident in The Care Center’s statistics.

On average, 95% of Care Center graduates are first in their families to attend college. 75% of Care Center graduates enroll in college, which is more than the 43% of students who graduate from high school nationally. The Microcollege, which during its 2016 inaugural session enrolled 10 students, now has 45. 100% of the College’s first cohort have graduated with an Associate’s Degree and have also gone on to pursue further studies at 4-year colleges including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and The Elms College.

“We had a culture where young moms were being pushed out of public education…The Care Center filled a real void in the community in terms of making sure all of Holyoke’s young people have access to a good quality education,” said Mayor of Holyoke Alex Morse while speaking of The Care Center’s unique model.

Painting of a woman's torso covered in flowers, her arms holding an infant lying on her belly.
Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

At the Care Center, high expectations around academic excellence go together with providing systems of support tailored for young mothers. Day care is offered for newborns and toddlers, along with early childhood education that promotes early literacy from a young age. Door-to-door transportation is provided to teen mothers to ensure every student has a ride to classes, medical appointments, and area services. An on-site nurse practitioner provides care five mornings a week, in addition to the support and transition counselors that guide the young women through personal and academic hurdles, including challenges endured by first-generation college students.

Creativity as a Gateway to Connection

Photos in the Care Center’s art studio depicting different masks for an art project exploring archetypes.

Arts, culture, and creativity play an integral role in the development of these young women, as art teacher Julie Lichtenberg noted, “The arts allow you to think inward and reflect…to be bigger than this moment.” Exploring archetypes in art studio, youth explore concepts of universal humanity and identity by creating masks that incorporate various patterns and materials reflective of select archetypes. Poetry has a deep and expansive presence at The Care Center, too. Students comprise the Editorial Board of Nautilus, an anthology of poems published by Care Center young women who draw inspiration from themselves, as well as renowned writers and poets who hold workshops and readings at The Care Center, such as Nikky Finney, Lesléa Newman, Junot Díaz, and Robert Pinsky. Remarking on the accessibility of poetry as an art form with the capacity to shift perspectives, Teschner said, “Poetry allows students access into the power of words and their own untapped capacity as writers. They’re able to take on a new role and become a part of the long public dialogue on the human experience.”

Being able to be a part of the “long public dialogue” is perhaps one of the most important takeaways of The Care Center and is key to the mothers being able to connect to oneself, each other, and to their broader community. Rodriguez shared, “The students serve as translators for each other while they’re at The Care Center.” AJ, Crystal, and fellow Care Center classmate, Tessa, emphasized the familial bonds shared among the young women, where youth feel safe to be themselves and are supported by staff who genuinely care. The girls belong to text groups with other Care Center women who offer each other words of encouragement and advice through various stages of their Care Center experience, whether they just started taking a computer class, or have graduated from the Microcollege. Care Center alumni who are at nearby colleges return to offer guidance or tutoring assistance, or to receive support and help themselves, both of which they know are always available to them.

The Roots of a Community

“Art and creativity is at the center of a lot of what we do, and that means not just thinking about visual arts, photography, or things that people can see…It starts with a focus on public education, and integrating arts into public education so that the extent of our success isn’t defined by our ability to attract artists from out of town [but developing] a pipeline of artists of local people that are representative of our constituencies of people, and making sure our current students are our future artists, creatives, and makers in the community.”

— Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke

The reach of The Care Center extends to spaces and people beyond the immediate building, as the Center is an active, creative hub in Holyoke and part of a larger network of teachers and artists from all over the Northeast, but especially those from Western Massachusetts. Instructors and faculty from area colleges run math and science programs through the Hypatia Institute. Students attend Humanities 108 sponsored by Greenfield Community College in a program developed to introduce a college-level course for youth preparing for the High School Equivalency exam. The Smith College Poetry Center works with The Care Center to build its robust visiting poets program, while Hampshire College offers access to its photography and film facility. And even though it may seem the bulk of The Care Center’s attention is focused on expecting and teen mothers, the organization shares its education, health, and cultural resources with other underserved women in Holyoke, as well as with area youth. For example, The Care Center (now in partnership with the Performance Project) has run the Teen Resource Project, an after-school creative youth development program for at-risk teens in partnership with the Holyoke Public Schools for over 30 years.

More recently, Way Finders, an affordable housing developer based in Springfield, broke ground on a new project, the Library Commons, a mixed-use development featuring 38 residential units for households at 60% or higher of the area median income, along with retail and cultural spaces. The Library Commons sits a few blocks south of The Care Center, near the Holyoke Public Library, and will include space dedicated to arts and culture programs at Roqué House. Named after Puerto Rican educator and suffragist Ana Roqué de Duprey, Roqué House hopes to further change ideas around who has a right to affordable and safe housing, as well as the pursuit of education, creativity, and self-fulfillment. Ten of the two- to three-bedroom units within the Library Commons will house teen parents who are enrolled in post-secondary education programs, while The Care Center will manage educational and cultural offerings, counseling, an artist-in-residence program, and additional ancillary support services to residents of the Commons.

First Lady Michelle Obama awarding the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to representatives from The Care Center.
The Care Center is a recipient of the 2011 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor recognizing community-based arts and humanities youth programs in the United States, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (Image: The Care Center)

“We joke that we cracked the code. A combination of high expectations, a matter-of-fact attitude toward success, and support works. We see the shift in the young women who come to The Care Center. It’s a posture change, a look in the eyes, an honest change in the way they look at the world,” Teschner said. Indeed, this ethos around high expectations and thinking beyond what exists is palpable within The Care Center, as well as city government, both entities which have examined what it means to integrate creativity and community.

This through-line between The Care Center and the city is evident in the close relationship shared between Care Center staff and numerous city departments, as well as in the sentiments expressed by youth.

“Holyoke is a city that cares about its people,” Tessa shared as she spoke of the rarity in finding a place like The Care Center that helps “make everything possible.” It’s also reflective of what can happen when organizations listen deeply, identify obstacles, and both courageously and creatively find solutions in partnership with other entities that share a common goal: a goal of developing a supportive city that truly invests in its community.

When asked to try and sum up all they had gained from being at The Care Center, Tessa (age 16), AJ (age 22), and Crystal (age 19) responded, with the following three statements:

“I have understanding.”

“I know I am capable.”

“I am successful.”

These outcomes reflect Teschner’s vision that includes the advice of, “Don’t be afraid to articulate your needs and vision. Be bold.” Following this advice has allowed so many young women to bring their dreams to fruition. These strengthened lives have also resulted in collective changes in our communities and inspire us all to take those next steps forward with passion and purpose in building brave futures together.

Even Pears Speak to Me

Andrine Pierresaint, sitting on the floor smiling, looking up, a small fluffy dog on her lap looks up at her. Photo: Alexandra Wimley.Meet Andrine Pierresaint, a longtime Books of Hope youth leader and a 15-year-old force to be reckoned with.

In her mid-teens, Andrine is not only an award-winning poet and  performer, but also a published author who facilitates a weekly series of creative writing workshops for a group of pre-teens at the Mystic Learning Center in Somerville, MA.

For Andrine, poetry has been an outlet for processing challenging emotions in a constructive way as well as a bridge to new worlds, connecting her to a community of mentors and young people from all walks of life.

“I have other people that I know that, like, if I want to talk about something I can talk to them about it, but the first person I’m going to think about to talk about poetry and what happened in an event and how I’m feeling about a poem, is Erich. He brought me to Louder Than A Bomb, and it was like a whole new world,” Andrine reflects.

Erich Haygun is the Program Director at Books of Hope (BOH), created in 1990 by Anika Nailah as a creative outlet for young people in and around the Mystic Learning Center. Specializing in poetry, BOH provides opportunities for young people to develop and refine their creative writing skills through peer mentorship.

Locally, BOH features their youth leaders at Boston Public Library’s Teen Central in Back Bay from 3-5pm the last Friday of every month. Additionally, BOH hosts “BEEN OUT HERE,” an all-ages open-mic and workshop every second Wednesday from 6-9pm at The Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, in collaboration with The Center for Teen Empowerment. BOH also prepares a team of young people to compete in the annual statewide Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Slam. In her time at Books of Hope, Andrine has participated in the competition multiple times.

“Isn’t poetry the fuel that pulls you out of bed? Something you do by yourself, for yourself, for your team, for your family, with your dreams, despite money, despite anxiety? Isn’t poetry something you do with your heaviest heart, with your last breath, with your whole life?”

Andrine Pierresaint embracing in a hug. Photo: Alexandra Wimley.Profoundly supportive of young people, BOH also offers paid fellowships to participants who demonstrate a commitment to their craft and are dedicated to sharpening their skills. Through these fellowships, young people have access to writing workshops, publication and performance opportunities, professional development as well as peer-mentoring training. Young people learn skills to explore their creative paths while also gaining technical assistance and financial rewards for their hard work.

Andrine’s first book entitled Even Pears Speak to Me features a collection of poems that address race issues, fat-phobia, mental abuse, neglect and its lasting effects. Her poetry also explores familial relationships and the power of learning to love yourself.

More on Andrine’s journey:

 

Video by Alexandra Wimley and Breana Stephen.

Photos by Alexandra Wimley.

A YOUTH DEDICATION

Marquis Victor, President of Elevated Thought, is a passionate and eloquent advocate for the arts and their central place in our collective struggle for social justice. He shared this poem with youth and their legislators at a recent State House ceremony celebrating the Mass Cultural Council’s Amplify Program, which invests directly in the creative work of young people across the Commonwealth.

A YOUTH DEDICATION

Kings and Queens
Abbreviated sentences
nestled in poetic prose
Rose from obscurity
to fight for your city
The beauty that is shared
can be compared to an opening exhibit
paintings depicting heaven
Holy Gates pushed open
emanating a light
that seeps through celestial boundaries
This light pours from your eyes
like sunlight spilled from a glass
This light is hope
The light of a subversive sequester
cradling progress
until it’s ready to bound forth full speed
tearing through oppression
like tanks carrying culture revitalization
like jets dropping missiles
upon barricades masquerading as a free nation

Kings and Queens

So true
Questioning the questioner
Questioning the system structure
till you puncture a hole
in the bloated belly of the beast
the gold hordes stuffed inside
will hit the streets and countryside
Mama y papa struggle less and less
because your hearts, minds, souls
will conquer the mountain flatten it out
maybe a metaphor
for the redistribution of wealth

Kings and Queens

You make wooden gods crack when you speak
The true God speaks through you
as you gather the voices of the people
The people who are you
You are they
All you needed was to see the way or maybe
just a faint street sign in the distance

Kings and Queens

You are change
You’ve exchanged futility
for brushes that color utopia
That heal the cracks in buildings
That remove that 15 year old girl
from a crack building
That spray paint over vandalism
with the power of Frost and Emerson
if they were imbued with brown hues
Poems of deep introspection
Words of a Revolution
like 24 cities cupped in twelve pairs of hands
Imagination paired
with Young Lord passion
with Black Panther passion
like knowledge was a canvas
and you power washed it in daydreams

Kings and Queens
Through words
Through images
Through truth
please continue to sing the song of Freedom

– Marquis Victor / Elevated Thought

Nano-Interview with Marquis Victor of Elevated Thought

Marquis Victor of Elevated ThoughtName: Marquis Victor
Organization: Elevated Thought
Title: President / Executive Director
Artistic Genres: Film, Poetry
Years in the Field: 7.5

What do you do at Elevated Thought?
I lead Elevated Thought’s vision, objectives, goals, and mission and facilitate many of our programs and workshops. Additionally, I’ve developed various art and social justice based curricula including our youth empowerment programs Creative. Community. Change. (C3) and Wall Speak.

Why do you do what you do?
Every year that passes affirms my passion for and desire to see art infused, social action education introduced in the city of Lawrence and cities like it. Studying the history of colonization, slavery, and immigration, I know generations upon generations of the poor and marginalized have suffered from a lack of education and opportunities to expand their creativity and imagination. This passion has given me the confidence to do my small part in providing tangible hope within the current educational climate and within the communities we serve.

What comes easiest to you in this work?
Waking up everyday and never questioning what I do and its purpose.

What challenges you in this work?
For many high school youth who have never been asked to embrace and utilize their imagination, the process of creative discovery can be novel and, at times, utterly confounding. The majority of them have been creatively stunted in their schools and environment. Disillusioned by content that is far removed from their reality, their personal meaning is often defined largely by despair, escapism, self-aggrandizement, or base means of survival that develop in poverty-stricken areas. Opportunities afforded for the select few further marginalize the majority and deepen the dehumanization process. The dehumanization process begins early on and, for many of the youth we serve, takes place when their creative interests and imagination is demeaned and begins to deteriorate. Breaking down the barriers to creativity and reemphasizing their standing as creatively capable beings can be a long and arduous process.

What does it mean to your community that you do this work?
We believe, as do other organizations and individuals spearheading this recent insurgency of arts in the city of Lawrence, creativity and imagination are keys to progress and empowering the individual and larger community.

How do you blow off steam?
Basketball, watching films with my wife, reveling in family and fellowships.

What do you create in your free time?
Poetry, experimental films, and ways to make my 7-month-old laugh.

Whose work in the CYD field do you admire and why?
My mentor and good friend Dr. Lou Bernieri, Director of Andover Bread Loaf (ABL). ABL uses literacy to enable participants to release the power of their voice and their capacity for school and civic leadership. Elevated Thought has been greatly influenced by ABL, now working in Lawrence for almost 30 years.

What music do you like listen to (if even a little too loudly)?
Movie soundtracks, chillwave, ambient, and synth beats.

What are you currently reading?
The Magic of JuJu by Kalamu ya Salaam.

The unauthorized biography of your life is titled:
Inside the Outside of Self

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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.