04/10/2018

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Written by: Delanoe Johnson, Reimagine Learning Associate and Leader of Youth Engagement Work at New Profit

We all have unique gifts that can help us frame our sense of purpose and the mark we leave on the world. For me it is and has always been art. My music is JOY. Art allows me to express myself in the rawest, purest, freest form. The great range of art we see and experience shows us how self-expression can take many different forms and how our message to the world can live in many skins.

Because art encourages us to discover and express our unique selves, it can help us tap into our genius. This is especially empowering for youth, as thinking creatively is in their nature. Young people haven’t been crushed into the “adult” way of approaching problems – typically structured, rigid, linear and (too often) unoriginal. Instead, youth are dreamers, seeing connections and possibilities that adults might have lost the ability to envision by problem-solving through pre-established lenses. So how have we tapped into the full power of artistic expression and capitalized on young people's innate creativity? Unfortunately, we haven't, or at least not in a way that is holistic and meaningful.

In the field of education, young peoples’ voices have been lost. Although most efforts are geared towards supporting youth and their learning, they are often not included in the conversation. We cannot serve youth by continuing to marginalize their voices. In fact, we are limiting the potential to effectively reimagine the future of learning by excluding the most creative free thinkers and problem-solvers. Reimagine Learning's “Awakening the Mind” project sought to break this pattern by centering youth voices and giving them a platform to learn and lead.

In July of 2017, New Profit's Reimagine Learning Fund convened YouthBuild USA's Young Leaders Council in Boston for “Awakening the Mind,” a two-day summit that marked the end of a four-month journey that included online learning, sharing, and peer-to-peer learning. This national council of 15 young leaders hailed from some of our nation’s most marginalized communities across the country, from urban to rural environments. They were elected onto YouthBuild’s Young Leaders Council by their peers to serve as national advocates for the issues their communities face. Each of these young leaders brought a unique perspective and experience with one undeniable commonality: having to drop out of a system that failed them.

Reimagine Learning engaged this group in online sessions leading up to July to prepare the young leaders to participate in the interactive summit workshops, which each highlighted how they can use art to share our stories and advocate for the change we wish to see in the world. Day 1 of the two-day summit kicked off with advocacy workshops, where local artist advocates from the Boston area—who each channel their advocacy in unique, creative ways—led the group through mini-learning sessions. The young leaders were exposed to the many ways we can channel our creativity for a good cause, from storytelling to music and poetry. Listening to these artist advocates inspired and energized the young leaders to start creating their own works of art.

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From there, the group traveled to Artists for Humanity, a local nonprofit that works to bridge economic, racial, and social divisions by providing under-resourced urban youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design. At Artists for Humanity, our each young leader was paired with artist and youth mentors for a unique spray paint experience that involved deep reflection and creative expression. The young leaders were asked to reflect on their learning experience as students in the K-12 education system or on a specific aspect of their learning journey and translate that to a canvas.

It was during this activity that some of the most important pieces of this group’s educational journey came to life. By asking the group to express this complex story through art they were forced to actively reflect on their experience in the K-12 education system. They considered what colors best captured the emotions tied to school and what images reflected this time in their life. Because there are no rules or limits to art, the young leaders could take ownership of their stories and how they chose to tell them. This can be uncomfortable for those of us that have been marginalized and without a voice, however it also has potential to be liberating and empowering. After given some time to reflect and create, each young leader gave an “artist talk” about their pieces and what experiences in their life they drew upon to create their work.

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“I started with a black and white backdrop because all of the 

answers in school are black and white, either right or wrong. it leaves no room for different ideas. my thoughts when adding the hexagons was I always was trying to be perfect, fit nicely into the shape that I was told I had to, and dreaded be off center or imperfect. Joining this movement I learned you don't have to fit into the shapes that people who don't know or care about you lay out for you.The bright colors are to convey the happiness I have now while furthering my education and how bright my future, and the future we are trying to pave for others, looks like.”

– Victoria Craft, YouthBuild USA Young Leader Council Member

By sharing their stories through art, students began identifying how their unique perspective and gifts can support educational advocacy. While they may not all consider themselves artists, they have learned and practiced the benefit of tapping into their creativity. Awakening the Mind was designed to provide an outlet for their voices, experiences, hopes and dreams for the future of education and to lift up their perspectives to inform the national conversation about the future of learning in America. The experience culminated in the young leaders creating a graphic video to share their stories and perspectives on the future of education. Watch, listen, and learn from these talented young leaders who tapped into the power of art and creativity to advocate for change that they deeply care about.