Prisca Ohito, a student at St. Paul’s Great River High School, said if she were to change the world with a single piece of art, she would make a lamp from found objects. It would light the room, but symbolically it would also be a place to go when people were afraid.
Wesley Taylor of Lake Junior High in Woodbury said his piece of art would be a photograph of two brothers hugging. “A simple picture of somebody loving somebody else might reach people,” he said.
Elexia Russell of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis said her artwork would be the story of a life of a teenager. “Many people, they see the peer pressure we go through. They try to understand us, but they don’t understand us,” she said. “It is not easy being a teenager.“
Ohito, Taylor and Russell were among the approximately 120 people—and mostly young people—attending the Youth Rising! Teen Summit held February 9, packing a hall at the University of Minnesota’s Regis Center for Art. The Summit aimed to blend art and activism. The Walker Art Center brought in Oakland-based spoken word artist Chinaka Hodge. She fired up the crowd with one of her poems and then posed the challenge: If they could leave the world a legacy of just one piece of art, what would it be?
Even some adults felt inspired to speak. Sonia Nuñez-Gibbs, a Spanish and English Language Learner teacher at Nellie Stone Johnson School in Minneapolis, said her art would be a two-continent mural. Children from Mexico and Mexican children living in Minneapolis would co-design it. Half the mural would be in Minneapolis, the other half in Oaxaca, Mexico. “You can’t fully understand the mural until you have seen both places,” said Nuñez-Gibbs, who had attended with some of her students.
The Minnesota Spoken Word Association, Youth Noise and Girls in Motion cosponsored the Summit. (Youth Noise is a web-based social networking organization that connects people under 27 around social issues. Girls in Motion, started by 15-year-olds Jazzmin Brooks and Dafina Bobo, has done community service projects and helped promote and run the event.)
The Summit started with pizza and cookies. Signs lined the walls reading: “Respect!” “Represent!” and “Shout It Out!” A Poetry Wall hung near the door, a large sheet of paper where youth could write as inspired. One had written: “I ‘m not only the future but the present,” and another “Sing with your soul, stir with your voice and move with your heart.”
State Rep. Neva Walker and Alexs Pate, associate professor of African-American and African studies at the University, gave pep talks. “You are fearless,” Walker told the youth. “Adults sometimes get stuck in the mud. You have the freedom to do whatever to make that change happen.”
Shá Cage, artistic director for the Spoken Word Association and Association Executive Director e. g. bailey led youth in a raucous call and response, with one half of the room shouting: “I don’t know about you, but I care!” and the others shouting back: “We here, and we’re gonna rock it!”
Organizers pushed youth to take a stand on issues. For instance, should artists self-censor out of respect for community sensibilities? Youth stood or sat, depending on whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, then were called on to explain their position. One youth said the very definition of “artist” includes free expression. One young woman responded: “I agree you shouldn’t censor people, but there are limits. I’d be mad if someone wrote the ‘N’ word all over my school.”
During down time, youth had the chance to create their own t-shirts, participate in a video project, draw, do poetry or mingle, as Conscious Hip Hop music (Hip Hop without the negative images) filled the room.
At the end of the afternoon, youth split into topical groups: Education, School Violence, Youth in Politics, Safe Sex and Health and Hip Hop. Facilitators worked with them to create an art-themed project around the topic.
Yet while youth such as Ohito already had a clear idea for her individual art project (she says she already has the lamp parts and just needs to put it all together) developing group art projects seemed more challenging. Some general ideas emerged, such as holding a poetry seminar around safe sex, or a Think Twice campaign around school violence. Yet it was the kind of work that takes more than an afternoon.
A similar Summit held in 2007 had generated other ideas, such as the FYI Campaign–For Your Image—to create positive images about women and young girls. The Spoken Work Association’s Cage said her organization hoped to take the top ideas from both Summits and help youth pursue them, moving from one-day event to long-term projects. Organizers collected names of youth wishing to stay engaged.
Time will tell.
“We have seen so many positive initiatives die out because leadership isn’t defined,” Cage said in an interview. “We want to help young people to know how to bring their ideas to fruition—how to map out a plan around resources, and not be crippled by not having large pools of money.”