Going Off-Script: Engaging Youth in Creative Practice

August 5, 2015

In this month’s Editor’s Letter, Marisa Mazria Katz talks with two artist/educators about realistic and meaningful ways to engage at-risk youths in creative practice, and about a recent project that reinforced the need for flexibility.

A drawing of Mohammed, one of the students involved in the program. Drawing by [insert artist]. [date?].

A drawing of Mohammed Ndiaye, one of the students involved in the program. Drawing by Ricardo Cortés. 2015.

This past January, with a grant from the Keith Haring Foundation, I was able to create a program that would give foster-involved youths the opportunity to contribute to Creative Time Reports. Our partner organization, the Children’s Village, was founded in 1851 by a cadre of philanthropists keen to address the swelling number of homeless youths in New York City. The Children’s Village Bronx campus aided us in finding teenagers to work with and provided us with space for our workshops. For the project I tapped the artists Ricardo Cortés and Lisi Raskin, both regular contributors to Creative Time Reports, to join me in teaching several sessions focusing on creative storytelling. As you will read in the roundtable below, little went as planned, but that was only to our utter delight. We opted out of rigidly sticking to a syllabus and instead responded in a more malleable way to our students’ needs, giving rise to experiences that we never could have foreseen. The workshop culminated in the spring with a session at which I was joined by Lisi Raskin and two students who happened to be siblings, Mohammed and Monrovia Ndiaye. The four of us took the time together to write letters to our future selves and then followed up by asking another person in the room to respond to the letter. We each read and recorded the letters.

For this month’s Editor’s Letter I interviewed Raskin and Cortés about their experiences. Below the interview you can listen to the four recorded readings. While the most intensive part of the workshop ended in May, one student, Mohammed, has continued on as a paid intern for Creative Time this summer. Needless to say, this has been one of the more joyful experiences during my time at the organization. I am grateful for the utter trust and freedom that Creative Time bestowed and for the generosity of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Creative Time Reports: What were your initial reactions to working on a project of this nature? How much did it align with your own practice?

Lisi Raskin: When I was asked to join Creative Time in making work with foster-involved youths, I was simultaneously excited and concerned. In my recent work I’ve been grappling with the norms of the art industry. I think these are never so suspect as when they take the shape of short-term, inequitable partnerships with low-income communities. Artists are trained to prize efficiency, style, finish and conceptual and aesthetic legibility referential of the white, Western canon. I set out to see how we could subvert this and translate our progressive politics into a set of practices for truly investing in our partners rather than taking advantage of their labor and leaving them unchanged.

Ricardo Cortés: I’m always eager to work with young people on projects that offer real-world skills in journalism and/or storytelling techniques, especially when such projects embrace a visual element to the reportage, as my own work does. The original intent of this project was to guide a group of teens through a story-making process: from editorial decisions, to interview practices, to ultimately professionally producing a narrative for popular consumption. I was excited to see the youths’ engagement with their own stories and to steer their technical and artistic abilities in conveying them.

CTR: Was there a person or style that influenced your approach to teaching the students?

RC: My approach is to provide an objective that is smart and interesting, with potential applications in professional settings that the youths might be interested in pursuing. Too often programs are designed with good intentions but without specific consideration of the participants’ day-to-day needs. Economic and emotional distractions are significant obstacles. I’ve found it difficult to engage sustained projects with young people, even creatively, unless they are getting paid for their work or the workshops are specifically designed to meet their cultural or professional interests. This is especially true in “at-risk” populations such as the group participating in this project.

LR: Over the last several years I’ve been deeply influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, George Lakey and Augusto Boal. Using the work of these teachers, I’ve been sketching a road map to making and learning about spaces that can rewrite how arts organizations and artists usually interact with underserved communities. My desires for this workshop were to try to create conditions that could support lasting relationships, because those are the most important outcomes for me. My approach values the ethics of production and interaction over the final product.

RC: I also see these student-teacher relationships as potential sources of compassion and attention from professionals. Too many youths lack regular exposure to successful agents of creative careers. I view the teaching role as a mentorship wherein young people are treated with high regard for their intellect and abilities as well as with special compassion for their circumstances. Sometimes even this seemingly limited goal can be a rich resource in the youths’ experience.

CTR: Did your expectations shift after the class began?

RC: In the short term this project necessitated quick responses and accommodations to the group’s dynamic. After our first class it was evident that we might have a committed working group of only one or two students, so we quickly reassessed the goals and structure of the entire program. Expectations shifted from delivering a group-constructed audiovisual story project to focusing on two students who showed a particular interest in exploring their own creative storytelling. Expectations of engagement also shifted with these two students, with hopes that our work together might be the beginning of a longer-term mentoring relationship.

LR: We ditched the script when we needed to. We were nimble. We responded to what the students said they wanted and needed, and we also challenged and supported one another as we dispensed with our own conditioning, which held that we needed to keep on task, stay on schedule and produce particular outcomes. We let things roll over. We shared stories instead of insisting that the students check their emotions at the door so that they could interact with us. We abandoned the disappointed, disciplinary tactic that rules so much of our working and living.

And we never used time as a weapon. Every moment of “being late” or not using the discipline-and-punish tactic was a moment of resistance to hegemonic capitalist ideas of efficiency.

CTR: In what would appear to be a distinctly nontraditional approach to teaching, what were the moments that you were most excited by?

RC: I’m always most excited when I discover the profound curiosities and creative talents of young people. Most sessions begin with surface observations of participants: our styles, our codes, how we are initially uncomfortable or shy about expressing our hidden environments or talents. The project we brought to the table took some time to find a receptive ear, especially for teens spending their Saturday mornings meeting strangers who are asking for their precious weekend hours. Over the course of our first session, it became clearer which participants were hooked by our potential collaboration, and it was at that point that we started to learn about the richness of the participants themselves. Once trust and interest were established, I think all the teaching artists were extremely excited by the creative talents of the young people with whom we had engaged.

LR: I loved the moments when we adapted our agenda; to me they were the deepest moments of protest, kind of like a work slowdown. . . . We helped four students register for community college and used Creative Time’s grant money to pay the application fees! That’s what it meant to be responsive to community needs when our youths shared that they needed real, adult help.

Of course, our co-authors, the students, were affected by so many factors that made their involvement in this project challenging. For our part, we were still working within a set of very real constraints, like limited time, energy and money. It was frustrating when communication broke down and we lost the attention of the participants. The unstable nature of the lives of the students, as well as the obvious need for more time and money to really do any kind of lasting and meaningful work, made this a bittersweet project. We knew we couldn’t do everything. If we had stuck to the script, we wouldn’t have produced a meaningful interaction.

Listen to the audio letters from the mentorship program, between Marisa Mazria Katz and Mohammed Ndiaye, and between Lisi Raskin and Monrovia Ndiaye.

Special thanks to Douglas Waite, Medical Director of Children’s Village, for all his support throughout the workshop.