Empowering Youth through Creativity
by Angela Zusman
Alexa’s got a spring in her step.
For the last several months, Alexa and a small team of high school students in San Lorenzo have been conducting interviews for Alliance for Arts Leadership’s Listening Campaign. They’ve listened to students, educators, parents, and principals all across Alameda County. Today, they were invited to present their impressions to the Alameda County Office of Education Board of Supervisors.
Alexa wasn’t expecting to present today. She was coming to support. But when the opportunity arose, she jumped in with both feet. When it was her turn to speak, she stood tall and delivered her message with unwavering eloquence and passion. To paraphrase:
What stands out for me from this project was seeing the different quality of schools in this county. It was eye opening and heart breaking. They hardly offer any art at my school anymore, so why should other schools in the same county get all the arts they want, and cooking classes, and even Pilates? We are all students in the same county. Why should I not be given the same opportunities as other students, just because of my address? ALL students in Alameda County deserve an excellent education.
One of the most powerful qualities of a true listening campaign is that it often takes you in unexpected directions. We couldn’t have predicted that this campaign, which focused on arts and creativity, would lead again and again to the topics of equity and mental health.
From the professional-quality theater at Albany High School to a packed, artless 7th grade classroom in deep East Oakland, the students we listened to inherently made the connection between art and well-being. Art enables them to express themselves freely – is, in fact, their ONLY opportunity to express themselves freely. Art supports them in building connections with their teachers. Art helps them feel welcome in their diversity. Art makes education feel relevant to their lives. Art empowers them to vent their pent-up feelings and begin to make sense of their confusing, often traumatizing environment. Art allows them to BE WHO THEY ARE and envision and evolve towards who they want to be. In some cases, art even keeps them alive.
In one conversation, a young woman related the story of a friend of hers who loved to sing. Her friend’s music classes got cut, and as she was deprived of all creative outlets, she began to cut herself. It was the only way to express herself anymore, to have any control over her life. Not long later, this young woman killed herself. If she’d only been allowed to sing, her friend said, I don’t think this would have happened.
It is time, Alameda County. It’s time for ALL of our youth to sing.
After the presentation, after recording an interview with the Superintendent of Alameda County Office of Education, after being congratulated by multiple adults for her excellent presentation, Alexa skips out of the county offices. Happiness emanates from her as visibly as rays of light. She may have even grown a few inches in the last hour. How do you feel, I ask her.
“I feel great,” she answers. “I feel empowered!”
This project is lead by a team that truly respects youth voices. This is an uncommon blessing. I am encouraged to see that the voices lifted up in this campaign are indeed being honored and listened to. While equity and mental health were not necessarily on the agenda before, they certainly are now. All of the youth input is being taken into careful consideration as leaders move to create a plan based on their astute observations.
And so, I could feel truly great about the spring in Alexa’s step. In this case, I felt that her experience of empowerment was not fleeting. As I watched her, I smiled inside. You are empowered. You are great. You are a leader. And this journey is just begun.