Jose Fernandez is one of hundreds of young people throughout Massachusetts learning new skills in a YouthReach project funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. (Photo by Jim Fossett, Massachusetts Cultural Council.)
Young people today face a host of hazards -- poverty, homelessness, violence and an erosion of family life and neighborhoods -- that threaten their successful transition to adulthood. At a time when technology can connect children to others around the world, many are often alienated from the communities outside their doors.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council's (MCC) YouthReach Initiative is a statewide program that enlists arts organizations and other community groups in addressing the concerns of their young people. The program serves children with disabilities, school dropouts, homeless youth, young people facing neighborhood violence, court-involved youth, runaways and pregnant or parenting teens. "These young people are seen as a set of resources with something very special to offer," says MCC Program Coordinator H. Mark Smith.
Helping Young People Meet Challenges
The arts are a powerful tool in helping young people make sense of the challenges before them. Meaningful experience in the arts can, among other things, help foster positive development that is essential to becoming a successful adult. YouthReach supports communities that use the arts to capture the imagination of young people. It does this by catalyzing collaborations between arts and other community organizations to offer opportunities for youth to learn new skills that will lead to a stronger sense of identity and belonging. Through such partnerships, a broader range of resources can be coordinated to provide a nourishing environment for children and teenagers.
Expanding Community Connections
One of YouthReach's many successful projects is the five-year-old PAH! Deaf Youth Theatre, which is part of the Wheelock Family Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. PAH! participants are 11-17 years old, and most come from hearing families who do not know sign language.
The establishment of connections to the wider community is the key to expanding horizons and opportunities for PAH! students. Artist-teachers, half of whom are deaf, teach communication techniques and build on participants' personal and social strengths to develop skills for everyday life. Classes, which are conducted entirely in American Sign Language (ASL), include acting, African dance and drumming, theater crafts, ASL poetry and storytelling.
Each year, PAH! actors create and perform a new work in ASL, with interpreters providing translations in spoken English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Students also interpret other productions, usher at performing arts centers and audition for professional productions. PAH! Troopers, a touring company of recent graduates, performs throughout the state an original piece celebrating deaf culture.
The length of students' participation ranges from one to four years. Before their experience at PAH!, most students, when asked to describe their future goals, respond "work at the grocery store," "work at the hotel laundry," or "collect SSI." PAH! graduates consider careers in teaching, nursing and technical theater.
A Winning Program
YouthReach received the first National Assembly of State Arts Agencies Innovation Award, which recognizes an innovative state arts agency or regional arts organization program. The 1998 award focused on a program that makes the arts available to individuals or communities who otherwise lack access due to geography, disability, economics, etc.
In October 1998, the Wheelock Family Theatre's Deaf Youth Theatre received a Coming Up Taller Award, which honors outstanding programs that foster the creative and intellectual development of America's youth through education and practical experience in the arts and humanities.
What Participants Say
In Holyoke, Massachusetts, the Arts Corridor, another YouthReach project, focuses on the city's poorest neighborhoods. The creative energies of the neighborhood's young people are tapped to help change the environment in which they live -- dense tenement housing where the median household income is less than $10,000.
"The Arts Corridor combines the talents of professional urban designers, artists, teachers, community development organizations and local youth to design a pedestrian corridor adjacent to a historic power canal in Holyoke. The idea was to physically link three different neighborhoods and districts together with the corridor using artistic expression along the route as a common theme that can be rich with individual expressions...Our experience with the YouthReach program is the reason our particular project is successful. They are the catalyst promoting the teaming up of arts-related institutions with new partners. They recognize the power that the arts can have in community revitalization." -- James Morrissey,YouthReach project coordinator
Kids at Risk
Almost 4 million children live in severely distressed U.S. neighborhoods. More than 11,000 young people ages 15-19 die each year from homicide, suicide or accidents. More than 14 million youth in the U.S. live in poverty.
Year started: 1994 Projects supported: 39 Budget: $805,755 in FY 1999 Focus: Projects usually get a two-year grant and may involve arts education and training programs, internships, artist residencies (excluding school residencies), youth-generated performances, literature, video or film pieces, murals or exhibitions. Most activities take place outside of the school, after regular school hours, in the summer, or on weekends.
For More Information
Massachusetts Cultural Council