One of the ways we teach youth about identity at Boys & Girls Clubs is through a program called Can You Hear Us Now? The idea for the program came through a disturbing awakening. In 2012 one of our Club Members was murdered. Many of our staff and Boys & Girls Clubs members attended his funeral. Before the funeral started the pictures and sounds were ones of grief at the highest level with a symphony of sobs. Those sounds changed abruptly when a disturbance broke out, guns were drawn, and eventually police swarmed in to the church. We were escorted out of the church and moved down to the end of the block. During those moments my normal life concerns disappeared; I feared making it back to my car safely.
Weeks later, the impact of the trauma I had experienced manifested in my body showing up as strep throat and fear of being in small spaces. A few weeks later in session with a group of Club members we discussed what had happened. The group shared they could not understand why I was still upset because that is what happens at a “hood funeral.” They went on to say they believed that nothing was going to change; more lives would be lost. I was bothered by the statement and became emotional with the group. Something had to change, but these young people didn’t think they could do anything. They didn’t identify as leaders and change agents. I decided then, the arts would become the catalyst to shift identity.
Can You Hear Us Now? uses performing arts as a platform to address community needs while teaching youth that their voices matter. Each year Club members participate in programming during the Fall semester using Theatre for Social Change activities to look at a national, community and world issues. Through the process, an ensemble is forged to generate hope for the community.
In each program year it’s consistent that in the beginning, over 90 percent of our participants believe they can’t make a difference in their community because it is hopeless. Throughout the program, youth shift their beliefs and begin to show up as leaders. Their attendance and grades go up in school. Members who never planned on going to college believe they could go and are accepted.
Each year, they select ideas on which art form to use, and which story needs to be told. This year, our dance and video mentors, Cedric Gardner and James Gavins who are funded through the Wallace Foundation’s Youth Arts, are collaborating to create a production that helps members tell the story of the birth of anger. We intentionally focused on the Social Emotional Competency of Self-Management. Through dance and video, Club members will be able to express their emotions and have tools to cope. Our production will also allow the community to see how they can support the success of youth.
Can You Hear Us Now? has given our youth local and national exposure. Every year, news affiliates take the time to share the work of our Club members. Scholastic Magazine interviewed one of our Club members in the program and the impact it has had on shaping his identity. Susan Crown Foundation included the program in a national Social Emotional Learning research manual. Youth development professionals from around the country are studying the work. Members were also granted the opportunity to take what they have learned on a local level to the Washington D.C. in the summer of 2015. One of the beautiful moments I will never forget is when our youth stood in the very place Dr. Martin Luther King shared the I Have a Dream Speech, and led us all in the song Lift Every Voice and Sing. Their voices were heard!
The arts are important for shaping youth identity. Our city can be seen through the stories we tell. It was necessary for use to use arts as a vehicle to help youth tell new stories. Show them that they have the power to lead and be heard in the current chapters of their lives and beyond. Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee’s Arts Department is intentional about empowering youth with tools to create new stories, while using the arts as a platform to heal and inspire. We believe that our youth have the power to transform and build a greater Milwaukee.
by La'Ketta D. Caldwell
Senior Program Manager- Arts Education Boys & Girls Club