How creative youth development makes a difference in the community

Khalil Bleux is the founder of Arts Amplifying Youth, a Southeast San Diego-based collective of artists and teachers dedicated to improving the lives of young people in underserved communities of color through what has become known as creative youth development.

“I grew up in this community and was raised by my community members,” Bleux said. “It was an experience that required the full village. They connected with me and helped me with struggles I was having in my life. I believe in the fundamentals of creative youth development because I’m living proof that it works. I was taught that art can become a tool for life. It helped me become an advocate and to do works to effect change.

“The difference between traditional arts education and creative youth development is that in traditional arts education spaces, art is designed to integrate into academics. It’s seen as an elective or an afterthought. In creative youth development, the way that we use art is centered on developing fundamental life skills that set young people up for success and teach them how to utilize their voices.”

Creative youth development organizations supported by grants and donations are intricately connected to their communities’ young people, using all of the arts as a means of teaching life skills. Some groups work onsite with schools or in residencies; others operate completely outside of the classroom environment. Their teachers and leaders are often San Diego arts professionals giving of their time. Many more are young adults who themselves were mentored or taught music, dance, visual art or theater in creative youth development programs then stayed on or returned to become mentors or teachers themselves.

They’re all making a difference in the lives of youths in San Diego County.

Matt D’Arrigo is director of creative youth development for the Clare Rose Foundation, which launched a Creative Youth Development Initiative five years ago and co-founded the San Diego Creative Youth Development Network. Its partners include the David’s Harp Foundation and the dance-oriented A Step Beyond and transcenDANCE, as well as participating entities such as La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe Theatre and San Diego Opera.

“The arts,” said D’Arrigo, “are the hook, the way to engage young people. Creative youth development organizations are providing academic support, college and career support, leadership development and mental health support. The majority of the young people in these programs are facing some sort of trauma.”

“When you’re in the classroom, there is so much else going on. These programs provide a safe space for young people to go that’s not their parents, not their principals or teachers. They’ve got adult mentors they can open up to and form long, trusting bonds with. They can find their tribe to be who they truly are.”

Creative arts development is arts education, “only a lot cooler,” said Brandon Steppe, founder of the 15-year-old David’s Harp Foundation. “That’s what it comes down to.”

David’s Harp teaches its at-risk students music and hip-hop production, utilizing its own Southeast San Diego studio facilities.

“Young people come into our facilities, create the music they love and they can trade their good grades and behaviors for additional studio time,” Steppe said. “It works because music is cool. Kids would say beats are dope. They want to make the music that they hear. What we are giving them is an opportunity to learn all of the technical aspects.

“I saw youths’ grades changing phenomenally. It works on a social aspect too, because we love them.”

Last summer, the David’s Harp Foundation received a $1 million donation from billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. Along with grants and other private donations, it’s propelling the organization forward on its mission, which, Steppe said, “is deeply involved with walking youths through systems, whether it’s the justice system, the foster care system or homelessness, and using art to be able to navigate those systems.”

Music is one way to guide young people through the trials of growing up and the struggle to find themselves and their paths in life. So are the theater, literary and performing arts taught by Khalil Bleux’s organization.

There’s also dance.

“It’s a unique art form in that it brings embodiment,” said Catherine Corral, co-founder and executive artistic director of the Lemon Grove-based transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project. “Dance allows for emotion and ideas to be shared without having to rely on the written or verbal word.

“We know that a lot of trauma is stored in the body. To be able to literally move out things that don’t feel good and to express with the instrument that the body is is really important for young people.”

Underserved youths learning dance at 16-year-old transcenDANCE are learning much more, about the world and about themselves.

“The young generation is questioning norms and values that have been upheld in mainstream society in a deeper way,” explained Corral. “Social justice issues, issues of racial equality, issues around queer identity — all issues they want to talk about and think critically about. They need a safe space to have conversations about them without judgment.”

A recent rehearsal at transcenDANCE studios in Lemon Grove.

A recent rehearsal at transcenDANCE studios in Lemon Grove.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The notion of movement being liberating is true as well at the Escondido-based A Step Beyond.

“We’re in this because we believe movement as a practice is so very good for our youth,” said Jennifer Oliver, the organization’s artistic director. “Through movement and an artistic expression of movement, they’re going to grow and get what they need to be healthy and to have good body practices that will last them a lifetime, and the opportunity to be present with each other and build relationships.”

The 8-year-old A Step Beyond operates on the premises of the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. It’s currently serving 280 youths, most of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, and hopes to reach 350 at capacity.

“We’re within walking distance for most of our youths,” Oliver said. “We do go into the schools, but we mostly get our youths from our current youths. A lot of families pass our name around to their families and friends. We have cousins and aunties and nieces and sisters and brothers.”

Offered Oliver: “The key to creative youth development is in the title. The work focuses on the development of our youth, and the arts are a way to do that. Everything we do always comes back to the student at the center of the work. We ask them, ‘Does this have value in your life? Does it help you reach your own personal goals? Does it work in the context of how you’re living, what’s happening in school?’ ”

In point of fact, what is considered creative youth development has existed in one way or another for decades, but, the Clare Rose Foundation’s D’Arrigo pointed out, “it was never named. When you define it, you can secure the resources and relationship opportunities you need to run these organizations.”

What they all share is the holistic application of the arts to the young person’s life, present and future.

“The arts is such a strong and powerful platform for young people that if you engage them in meaningful ways, you can also support them in other ways,” D’Arrigo said. “It’s using the arts as a transformational vehicle for young people and their communities.”

Coddon is a freelance writer.

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