By Wendy Ponte
Issue 141, March-April 2007
I am ashamed to admit that, like many adults, my general view of teenagers was probably a bit cynical.
I had bought into the old stereotype and assumed that teens were rebellious, self-involved, and irresponsible. So when I heard about four organizations that work with young people in revolutionary ways, I wondered: Can a program for teens really make a difference—a lasting difference—in the future of a kid who has grown up in an atmosphere of poverty or violence? Perhaps even more important, can it also affect the choices of more privileged youths, helping them to begin a life in which good values take priority over possessions and accomplishments?
Fortunately for the world, the four unique groups I researched—CityKids, Art in Action Youth Leadership Program, Seeds of Peace, and Chat the Planet—are highly successful in just this sort of work. I am convinced that they could teach our world leaders a thing or two, never mind reaching out to teenagers.
What really blew my preconceptions about teens out of the water was talking to some of the young people involved in these programs. Sure, people in this age range, roughly from 13 to 21, still have a lot of growing up to do. But these particular young people, by the time they hit their thirties, will have ended up miles ahead of almost everyone I know, regardless of age. For every teen served by these organizations, there are hundreds who will get nothing—the kids you'll meet in this article are mere drops in the bucket of worldwide need. But what big, glistening drops they are.
As a youth, Charles Mack, former Musical Director of CityKids, was himself one of those little drops of water. One of Mack's most important memories of his experience with the program was how it affected someone else. The CityKids Repertory group he belonged to created a performance, for a men's drug-rehabilitation center, on the theme of love and support. A lot of men watched them that day—too many for Mack to remember individual faces. But three years later, as he walked down a Manhattan street, he was stopped by a stranger. "You were with that CityKids group," the man said. "You had a really big effect on me. I'm still clean and doing well."
CityKids was founded in 1985 by Laurie Meadoff, who now serves on its Board of Directors. In the beginning there were only ten kids in the CityKids program. Today, the organization serves hundreds of youths, ages 13 and up, through a vast array of programs using performance, community service, and school-based workshops to help young people change their lives. Most participants are from low-income homes and African-American and Latino populations.
What is unique about CityKids is that the programming is driven by the kids themselves. "Other programs bring work to kids and then ask them to perform it," says Mack, "but here we have a partnership between kids and staff. They create original material." These shows are taken into high schools, half-times at games, and special events such as President Clinton's 50th birthday party. There are also activities such as after-school programs, discussion groups, and poetry readings, to name only a few. All participants begin with CityKids's CK101, a set of activities that guides them through the process of learning to collaborate with other youths and set personal goals. They are given support services, such as tutoring, mentoring, and career counseling.
In addition, CityKids runs a school-based program called BridgeBuilder Initiative (BBI), also cocreated by the youths they serve. "One school group we went to decided to try to find out why their school was so dirty," says Mack. "After a while they came to the conclusion that it was their own fault. So they started a campaign to clean up. They set up initiatives and held an after-school contest to see which classroom could get the cleanest."
It is this drive to support youths in developing their own programming that makes CityKids and other programs for teenagers create lasting change. It teaches young people to learn to respect their own ideas—ideas that they themselves then transform into shows and workshops. "I am addicted to the creation of these young thoughts around me," says Meadoff of the philosophy that guided CityKids's unusual brand of program development. "Instead of leading them, I ask, 'Where do I follow them?'"
That level of trust and respect seems to have deeply affected three young people I spoke to. Kathryn Jordan, 18 years old, has been a member of CityKids since she was 14. "I'm in the student council at my school," she says. "CityKids helps me to deal with a lot of situations. It allows me to not just pick an argument, but to use the communication skills I've learned. I used to be just reacting all the time." Kathryn has now been entrusted with an important leadership role in CityKids: she represents the program at different high schools, where she leads workshops on topics such as bullying and teen pregnancy.
Zawadi Noel, 21, joined CityKids because his high school's curriculum required that he do community service. Five years after completing that requirement, Zawadi is still involved with CityKids, and has used his experiences to make big changes in his life. "I want to become an art teacher," he says. "School is awesome, but a lot of times it's all about this test or that test. I think an art teacher can help kids to feel more well-rounded."
Sasha Di Beneditto, also in her fifth year with CityKids, is now 18 but exudes a maturity far beyond her real age. "I think that problems make up who we are," she tells me. "So I'm not going to waste time regretting anything. I have a friend with HIV, and her mom died from it. I talk to her and try to help her with the concept of accepting things and moving on."
All three of these young people went through CityKids's rigorous leadership-development programs, then learned to help newcomers get the most out of them, just as they had. Kathryn was recently awarded a youth staff position at CityKids and will be paid to work there part-time as a financial coordinator while she attends college. Zawadi was hired to be the lead facilitator for CityKids's BBI.
Art in Action Youth Leadership Program
Another example of a young person who found direction through arts-related programming is Maurice Lewis. Mosiris (as his friends call him) attended the Art in Action Youth Leadership Program in the summer of 2005, at the age of 22. In his case, however, the metamorphosis was so profound that, just six months after leaving the program, he was no longer homeless or unemployed.
"I had been living at the Covenant House shelter for 19 months," says Mosiris. "When I came back from Art in Action, I had to make a choice—am I going to stick with this? I had this overwhelming, positive feeling. I got a job with AmeriCorps and things started to fall into place. A few months ago, I got my own apartment."
Art in Action Youth Leadership Program was cofounded six years ago by the organization's director, Xiomara Castro, with Maryam Roberts, Alli Chagi-Starr, and Galen Peterson. Each year they bring 25 youths to the Santa Cruz Mountains of California for a ten-day camp program. Most of these young people come from harsh backgrounds, and some are homeless. Eighty percent are people of color, including Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans.
The camp focuses on three main areas: arts instruction, social justice, and self-empowerment. The arts are infused throughout all aspects of the Art in Action program, and include music production, visual arts, dance, theater, and giant puppetry in the street-theater tradition. New this year is a digital storytelling element, in which video is used to tell one- or two-minute stories.
Each year, a different theme of social justice is emphasized in the group's final performance. This year's theme is "Stop the Violence"; the performance will focus on our overall culture of violence, including sexual and street violence. Last year's theme, "Rising Up for Peace, Justice, and Self-Determination," concerned militarism; the final show included skits about the military recruitment of teens, and depictions of the loss of life that occurs in war. One of the street puppets created for that show recently appeared in a Mother's Day antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC. One side of the puppet shows an American woman of color whose child has been recruited into the military, the other an Iraqi mother whose child has been killed.
The self-empowerment aspects of the Art in Action camp are woven into every activity. Like the other organizations I investigated, the Art in Action facilitators spend time at the beginning of each program talking about how to create a safe environment for everyone. The net result is that empathy becomes possible, sometimes for the very first time in these young people's lives.
Director Castro describes the changes: "Participants say things like, 'I've never been in a room where people are so different from me, but by the end they feel like family.' 'Before this I might not even have spoken to this person, maybe because of how they look, their sexuality, their race, etc.'" As if leaving homelessness behind were not enough, another of the big changes in Mosiris's life had to do, unexpectedly, with food. "Eating well is a very new concept for many of these young people," says Castro. When she and her cofounders started the organization, they made a commitment to serve organic, vegetarian meals during camp. "Being vegetarian for ten days just opened up a whole new world for me," says Mosiris. "I stayed vegetarian for two months, but there weren't a whole lot of options for that at the shelter. I just had to make a fuss because I want to get healthy."
Mosiris's campaign changed the food service at his shelter. More options were created at meals, and better snacks became available, such as fruit, nuts, and granola. Mosiris weaned himself off junk food.
This summer, Mosiris is going back to Art in Action—this time as a facilitator, to help other young people experience what he has found so meaningful.
Seeds of Peace
Unlike Mosiris, 17-year-old Eric Tanner hasn't had to struggle with issues such as homelessness. Good food, a roof over his head, and a solid education at a private high school in New York's Westchester County have been the givens of his life. Growing up in a Jewish home, Eric kept up with the conflicts in the Middle East. But a summer at Seeds of Peace changed him from being a kid interested in world events in a more intellectual way, to one who now has a deeper understanding of what it might be like to grow up in an atmosphere of hatred and the constant threat of bombings.
Seeds of Peace was created in 1993 by author-journalist John Wallach, who died in 2002; the organization is now run by his wife, Janet Wallach. John Wallach's idea was to put young people from conflict regions around the world together in a camp in Maine and help them to better understand each other—then send them back to their own countries as "seeds" of greater understanding and more harmonious coexistence. The organization began with 46 teens from Israel, Palestine, and Egypt, and today serves 3,400 teenagers and young adults from the Middle East and South Asia. Many of these young people had never had a conversation with someone from "the other side," never mind shared a bunk with them for three-and-a-half weeks, or swum or made art together.
Because, like Eric, most American teens have never met someone their own age from the conflict regions they read about in the news, a group of American youths is also selected to attend each camp along with the international participants. Although few of the American teens have had any direct experience with the violence encountered by their overseas peers, they often have preexisting ideas about the conflicts.
Fadwa Baroud, one of nine children, had spent her entire life living and going to school in the Palestinian refugee camp in Dehisha when, not quite understanding what she was getting herself into, she applied to Seeds of Peace. She was only 11, but already her mind was made up about Israelis, at whose hands her best friend had died.
Instead, Fadwa's good grades led her to a summer in Maine and a transformation of her thinking. "Seeds of Peace encouraged me to think more about my own future and let me understand that destroying the enemy is not the solution. It can't bring back my friend," she says, "but making peace with the enemy can save the lives of my other friends, and even of myself and my children."
Now 24, Fadwa is married with two children and works full-time for a non-governmental organization that works to improve the Palestinian educational system. She also manages to fit part-time attendance at a university and volunteer work into her already busy schedule. She dreams of someday becoming a lawyer. "Seeds of Peace has played the main role in my life choices—even that of choosing my husband," she says. "The first thing I asked him, as a condition of our marriage, was 'Do you support peace?' When I found out he thinks the same way as I do, I realized my kids would be raised on the principles that Seeds of Peace raised me on. I hope that by the time Salma and Hamza are old enough for Seeds of Peace, they won't be talking with the Israelis about land, Jerusalem, or the wall, but about fashion, sports, and love."
For Eric, like Fadwa and many of the young people who attend the Seeds of Peace program, the journey to better coexistence did not begin easily. "Because the Americans are spread out among the other campers, you are the only American in your bunk," says Eric. "For the first couple of days I wished I was back at my old sleepaway camp that I'd been going to for years." The Seeds of Peace curriculum is geared toward quickly smoothing out that initial strangeness. Many traditional camp activities are a part of the program: swimming, sports, music, and drama. A ropes-climbing course and the Color Games, in which kids form multinational teams and compete against each other, are used to foster teamwork. Religious services of every type are held at camp, and are open to anyone who would like to attend. In addition, dialogue sessions, though emotionally charged, begin to help kids understand each other's views about the conflict and teach them to respect different opinions.
I asked Eric what was the most important thing he had learned. "I came to realize just how minimal and insignificant American influence really should be in the world," he says. "That is a tough thing to get used to, but after a while you begin to appreciate it and appreciate being let off the hook. It's better for everyone that way." Since his experiences there, Eric and his parents continue to be involved with the program. He helped plan and create a conference for American Seeds of Peace alumni to meet and share ideas. He and his family traveled together to Israel and connected with some of his fellow campers who live there. This past summer Eric returned to the camp as a Peer Support camper, helping to mentor new attendees.
Fadwa, in between mothering, work, volunteering, and college, has also found time to continue her involvement, even leaving her kids for a few days to attend a Seeds of Peace Leadership Summit meeting.
Chat the Planet
Understanding what it might be like to live in someone else's shoes is also the goal of Chat the Planet. In this case, however, the conversations that develop among youths of different cultures can be witnessed by anyone who has access to a television. Using the latest in real-time technology, Chat the Planet's producers, NextNext Entertainment and their South African partner, Rapid Blue, stage conversations between two groups of young people: one in America, and one in another country, such as South Africa, Jordan, or Australia. (The shows were originally aired in the US on MTV and can now be seen on Link TV or MTV's college network, mtvU.)
Melissa Figueroa now works full-time for Chat the Planet, but began her relationship with them as a 20-year-old participant while attending New York University. She appeared on the Chat the Planet episode "Tongue Tied" along with six other youths from the US and 11 from South Africa. The half-hour episode shows them exploring the different ways in which race is talked about in the two nations, and what it means to be "politically correct."
"I was surprised that they were so much like us," Melissa says. "You can say you understand the global situation, and get lots of information ahead of time, but still you find yourself thinking that they are going to be somehow exotic. But they wore Nikes and had dreadlocks, just like us." Indeed, for a viewer, it can sometimes be confusing to figure out who is from which country. The participants from one nation are just as likely to disagree with each other as with their counterparts from the other nation.
This is exactly what the producers of Chat the Planet hoped to achieve. "Walls come tumbling down when you perceive the humanity of the other," says founder Laurie Meadoff, who also founded CityKids. "It is impossible to bomb someone when you get to know them."
This notion is particularly poignant when watching the two episodes of Chat the Planet's "Bridge to Baghdad." The first segment was taped two weeks before the US invasion of Iraq. "Bridge to Baghdad 2," with the same American and Iraqi youths, was taped a week after the war had begun, as bombs exploded two blocks away from the studio; mid-episode, the Iraqi participants had to get up and move to a new location.
In the first episode, the seven Iraqi youths are clearly on edge as they anticipate the US attack, and talk about stocking up on food and water. None of them is willing to say anything negative about Saddam Hussein or the way of life in Iraq. When Suha, one of the Iraqi youths, asks, "Will you like it if I come with an army and force you to kick Bush out?," the American participants seem taken aback. The Iraqis also discuss more universal topics, such as heavy-metal music and sibling rivalry. Later, one of the Americans, Eric, says, "This really humanized the Iraqis for me."
Like the other youth programs I explored, Chat the Planet provides ways for group members to stay in touch after the programs are over: listservs, alumni events, and opportunities to grow into leadership positions. Many former participants take advantage of these offerings. Melissa, who now works full time for Chat the Planet, witnessed an American woman and an Iraqi man from the "Bridge to Baghdad" series meet each other in person for the first time at Chat the Planet's offices. "They've kept in almost daily contact since the shows were taped three years ago," she tells me. "They claim there is no romance between them, though."
Hope for change
At a time of multiple world conflicts, programs such as CityKids, Art in Action, Seeds of Peace, and Chat the Planet give all of us hope for change—and show us precisely how to make that change happen. In their different ways, each of these organizations helps teens change their minds before trying to shift anything else in their lives or in the rest of the world. Stuck in old patterns and scenarios that they themselves did not create, these young people are being shown how to see things around them differently and how to think for themselves. Through this process, young people can learn that what is most important is not agreement, but empathy and open-mindedness.
"Tell your kids that test results and good soccer scores are not the most important things—not compared to what else is going on in the world," advises Eric. He pauses. "Was that corny enough?"
"Did you mean it to be corny?" I ask.
"No. I was speaking from the heart."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contact information for the four organizations profiled in this article:
Art in Action Leadership Program, 519 42nd Street, D, Oakland, CA 94609; 877.937.9688;
Chat the Planet, NextNext Entertainment, 307 W. 38th Street, New York, NY 10018; 212.375.2620; www.chattheplanet.com.
CityKids, 57 Leonard Street, New York, NY 10013; 212.925.3320; www.citykids.com.
Seeds of Peace, 370 Lexington Avenue, Suite 401, New York, NY 10017; 212.573.8040; www.seedsofpeace.org.
If you would like to learn more about other programs for youths, check out some of these:
City at Peace, like CityKids, uses the performing arts to empower youth to effect social change. The nonprofit conducts intensive, year-long programs in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, during which diverse urban young people write their own musicals about issues such as teen pregnancy and violence. The CD City at Peace Volume I showcases some of the powerful original songs performed in several different shows. 212.924.2300. www.cpnational.org.
Do Something. Founded by Michael Sanchez and actor Andrew Shue, this national organization's mission is to give young people the tools, inspiration, and opportunity to make a difference. They focus on community building (for which they give out grants), health, and the environment. Their Challenge curricula can be downloaded by schools and after-school programs, and youths can submit articles to Build magazine. The website, www.dosomething.org, is chock-full of information for young people about topics ranging from animal advocacy to anorexia.
Global Kids, based in New York City, educates high-school students about critical international and foreign policy issues and develops the leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills they need to be active citizens locally and globally. They have an online program in addition to their New York City programs and school workshops. 212.226.0130; www.globalkids.org.
SEAC. The Student Environmental Action Coalition is a grassroots organization of student and youth groups fighting for environmental and social justice in schools and communities. These groups share resources, build new coalitions, and learn about important related campaigns and causes. Their website has a links page with information about dozens of other youth-based groups and programs. 215.222.4711; www.seac.org.
Teen Activism Links, an online service sponsored by a Wisconsin public library, has links to many teen organizations. www.midlibrary.org/library/teen/activism.htm.
Yes! has held more than 90 weeklong gatherings for young leaders from more than 65 countries. At the gatherings, young changemakers experience a sense of community and learn skills to help their worldwide network of nonprofit organizations to thrive. Yes! also conducts shorter workshops, talks, rallies, and marches. 831.465.1091; www.yesworld.org.
Youth Activism Project, created to help youths speak up and pursue lasting solutions to problems they care deeply about, serves as a resource center and clearinghouse for more than 100 national advocacy organizations. Its youth-led global action campaign, School Girls Unite, advocates for increased educational opportunities for girls in West Africa. Posted on its website's "Success Stories" section are dozens of inspirational accounts about young people who have made a difference. 800.543.7693; www.youthactivismproject.org
Wendy Ponte is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her daughter, Adelaide (11).