Teenage years can be a daunting time for anyone. For youth struggling with family issues, homelessness or other traumas, there are even more challenges to consider. To help struggling youth, Catherine O’Neill Thorn founded the Arts from Ashes (AfA) program in Denver in 2003. Having worked primarily in juvenile detentions centers, treatment centers and schools – including conducting post-trauma workshops at Columbine High School – O’Neill Thorn developed a curriculum designed to empower struggling students to express their creative genius. Through writing, art and performance, Art from Ashes gives youth an opportunity to work through their challenges in a safe, expressive and creative way. Since forming, Art from Ashes has worked with more than 10,000 young people to help them find their voice. We caught up with Courtney Chandler, director of programs at Art From Ashes, to learn more.
Q: What do your workshops offer to students?
Courtney Chandler: The Phoenix Rising and Drawing on Air creative empowerment programs allow struggling youth to tell their stories and express themselves in a safe environment through poetry and spoken word, as well as visual and tactile art. By expressing themselves in a creative and artistic way, youth find a safe outlet for self-expression, rather than resorting to violence or turning to drugs. Youth also learn how to shift their perspectives about their world, their experiences, and themselves into a more positive light.
How does working with art and metaphor help empower kids and teens?
CC: When we use metaphor, we are describing something by using words or phrases to suggest their resemblance to something else – for example, an old man driving a red sports car, which represents a reconnection to his youth. When young people write about their past experiences using metaphor, it allows them to reconsider these moments from a new angle, one that is much less triggering and stigmatizing. This enables them to shift their perspectives of those events. For example, a youth may feel that a traumatic event has ruined them, but through the power of metaphor, they may realize the ways in which it has strengthened them.
What’s an example of the direct ways that this type of program can positively impact youth?
CC: Art from Ashes youth workshop attendees have had success in other areas of their lives to which they attributed their participation in our workshops. One youth in particular experienced some amazing transformation this past year. Hibaq, age 18, had struggled to stay in school and had bouts of homelessness during this timeframe. She nearly lost hope that she would obtain her high school diploma. Her truancy resulted in her being required to repeat her senior year during the 2016-17 academic calendar. Through the encouragement of AfA facilitators, and the empowering transformational process Hibaq underwent during the workshops, she was able to graduate in December. It is a true delight to witness the success of this particular youth, who has now committed to train as a peer facilitator for Art from Ashes.
What advice do you have for teens struggling with self-esteem or other negative social experiences?
CC: Expression and connection are huge aspects of Art from Ashes’ mission because they enable youth to reduce stigma, empower themselves and others, and see their lives from different perspectives. So, for any youth out there who are struggling right now, our advice is to express yourself, and connect with your peers and your community. Express yourself in a safe way that feels good to you, like writing, drawing, painting, playing music, etc. – and then share it! Read your poem at an open mic night, share your artwork with your friends, join a band – all of those options are great ways to express yourself and connect with your community at the same time. ■
Now I am my own self
A piece of art
I am definitely not flawless
Maybe a few smudges on the canvas
But that’s okay, because
I am still painting this picture
Of what I am
Of who I am
I am unique
With different textures and colors
Painting a new piece of life everyday
Today I am better
Than what I was yesterday
– Francisco, age 17
If I were a pink poet I would write of love and dreams
I would be sweet and delicate
I would be delicate
If I were a jellyfish I would be carefree
I would flow
I would write of freedom
I would write of the breeze
If I were a flower poet I would be at ease
I would let the wind drag me along
I would write of the sun and bees
If I were a sunny poet
I would write of my earth
I would write of the clouds
I would be loud
I would be proud
I would write of my power, my joy
I would be happiness and strength
– Dominique, age 17
They rise up in the morning
And set at night
They are wise like the moon
In the night sky
Covering over and supporting society
As an angel spreads their wings
Over people they love
From a girl to a wise woman
– Jahanna, age 18
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