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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Reaching Out to At-Risk Youth

Express Yourself Milwaukee turns 5

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Would you speak up if you thought nobody listened—or cared? Would you tell the truth if it was painful? Probably not. But the kids who participate in Express Yourself Milwaukee Inc. (EYM) are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings and creativity with their peers and the community, even when it’s difficult.

Their mentors say that these at-risk youth learn to work cooperatively, express themselves honestly, and become excited about creating works of art. That artwork includes music, visual arts, poetry, dance and other methods of self-expression.

“We focus on collaboration,” said Lori Vance, who founded EYM as an affiliate of Express Yourself Inc. in Boston. “We take a team of artists out into the community to work with kids. The core belief among the team is that art can change lives, and that if we can engage kids in art-making then they will find more of themselves to express positively and then they can develop other options to the challenges in their lives.” Vance said that each year the team of artists creates a theme for the kids and mentors to develop, and then they meet weekly to produce a performance for the community. This year’s theme is “celebrate,” since it’s EYM’s fifth anniversary.

The “celebrate” performance will be held on May 15 at Helfaer Theatre at Marquette University. Before that, on Feb. 25, a fund-raiser will be held at the Turner Hall Ballroom. The program is focused on developing positive responses to difficult situations, and it helps kids deal with those difficulties through the creative process. Often, the kids are confronting problems that even adults have trouble coping with in a positive way. For example, three youths who were involved in the program died because of gun violence, and others are coping with pregnancy, legal problems, abuse and unstable families.

Jahmes Anthony Finlayson, of the world music ensemble One Drum, said Express Yourself Milwaukee creates a safe space for the kids to open up about these difficult issues. Finlayson, who’s been involved with the group since its inception, said one young man struggled to write a poem about his mother, a prostitute; another acknowledged that he could have gotten involved in gang violence and died if he hadn’t become engaged in the arts; others learn how to channel their anger or fear into positive activities. Finlayson recalled one writing exercise, which asked the kids to respond to the cue “The truth is…” “Those kids wrote for 45 minutes,” Finlayson said. “We created an environment and space where it’s safe for self-expression.

That allows us to have some difficult conversations.”

Reaching At-Risk Youth
Vance said Express Yourself’s approach appealed to her because, as a visual artist and art therapist, she knew that kids dealing with violence, poverty, broken families and addiction needed a different type of outreach effort than traditional therapy.

“We serve kids that are living in risk, kids in alternative schools, in detention, in residential and day treatment programs,” Vance said. “What I found as a therapist is that regular psychotherapy was great [while the kids were] in the room, but the supportive environment…for them to make use of it wasn’t a viable response to the challenges in their lives. In this model, we work sideby-side, co-creating with kids about a particular theme.”

Vance and her team of artists began working with students at the Eighth Street School and Golda Meir School for the Gifted and Talented, and have since expanded to working with kids at St. Aemilian-Lakeside, Westside Academy I and II, Our Next Generation and the Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Center.

Milwaukee County Children’s Court Judge Mary Triggiano, who serves on EYM’s board, said she saw how youths in the detention center responded positively to the organization’s efforts. While these kids can’t perform at the yearly celebration, they can help produce props and videos for that performance.

Triggiano said that tapping into kids’ creativity during a difficult time in their lives has a transformative effect. “It gives them another outlet to express themselves, as opposed to being in a traumatic situation, being isolated,” Triggiano said. “It gives them a way to contribute in a way that they have not been able to contribute to others before, through music and in a group setting. I think it also gives them a sense of being valued for what they are creating. And a lot of these kids have not had the opportunity to create music or artwork that is appreciated the way that Express Yourself Milwaukee does.”

Triggiano said that Amlak Tafari, bassist for Steel Pulse, once spoke to the boys about respect. “He really connected with the kids,” Triggiano said. “He talked to them about not just the benefits of working in music, but also the importance of respecting yourself. The boys were very attentive to him. It’s as if, for the moment, these kids are transformed to another place and time and don’t have to worry about being on the streets or having problems in their lives. They can transcend that for a moment and concentrate on the artwork.”

Vance said that the weekly meetings with the kids are a bright spot in their otherwise difficult lives. “We find that structure, and then within that structure people can find the room to express themselves and be free,” Vance said. “But without that structure it doesn’t make any sense and it doesn’t connect with the whole.”

The Shepherd Express is partnering with Express Yourself Milwaukee Inc. this year to raise awareness of at-risk youth in Milwaukee. For more about the group and its Feb. 25 fund-raiser, go to www.expressyourselfmilwaukee.org.

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Photos by Kate Engbring