Temple helps North Philadelphia teens make art from struggle—and transform their lives and communities in the process.
story by Renee Cree, SMC ´12
Education is the key to success
But just like the windows bolt lock the door
It's never a good thing to know too much
They rather incarcerate than educate so we can never get a job
And ask why we rob
And say that we're the problem
No, we´re just the aftermath
Jamarr Hall became disinterested in school in second grade, soon after the death of his mother. Though his frustrations lasted throughout high school, they did not manifest until after graduation.
"I didn´t realize what I´d missed out on—all the opportunities that students at better schools had," he says now. To purge his true feelings about his learning environment, he wrote the poem "Budget Cuts," an excerpt of which is above.
"I write from my life experiences," says Hall, now 20 and employed full–time as a plumber with dreams of a career in entertainment. "I write from my heart."
Hall liked to write, but he never performed his work until his senior year in high school, when he was invited to a poetry gathering in Philadelphia. There, he met Greg Corbin, founder and CEO of Philly Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM), a volunteer–run nonprofit organization that provides an environment for Philadelphia teens in which they can flex their creative muscles.
Corbin invited Hall to a slam–poetry workshop, where participants perform poetry and bounce ideas off each other. At that first workshop, Hall met Cait Miner, EDU ´08, ´09, who oversees PYPM´s slam–poetry program. In addition to weekly workshops, the program includes a high school slam–poetry league. It operates similarly to school sports programs: Students from approximately 15 area high schools compete in poetry meets throughout the academic year that culminate in semifinals and a championship.
"Cait was excited and happy that I wanted to continue with poetry, and she encouraged me to keep coming back," Hall says.
That was two years ago. Since then, he has become a kind of teacher himself. This past summer, he coached, mentored and traveled with six PYPM members to the annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco. With more than 40 participating teams, it is the largest ongoing spoken word event in the world.
"Many of the kids who go through PYPM come back as mentors after they age out of the program," Miner says. And many PYPM alumni who attend Temple join Babel, the university´s student–run spoken–word team. "PYPM is a like a family," she says.
"A lot of the kids who come through here have seen hardship. To see them connect with their peers and come out of their shells is amazing."
Miner notes that many of her students in PYPM deal with issues such as drug abuse, homelessness, violence and even murdered family members. Unfortunately for many adolescents across Philadelphia, and in major cities across the country, these issues are all too common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, violence is the leading cause of death among urban African Americans between 10 and 24 years of age, and the second–leading cause of death for Hispanics in the same age group. African–American youths also are victims of crime at a rate of about 26 per 1,000, versus 18 per 1,000 for Caucasian youths, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. With 72.6 percent of North Philadelphia´s population being African American and 20.5 percent being Hispanic,* that deadly threat of violence looms large.
Research also shows that chronic exposure to violence among minority youths could affect a child´s ability to cope with distress. But according to Gerald Stahler, CLA ´79, ´83, psychologist and professor of geography and urban studies at Temple, the news is not all bad. Creative outlets, such as writing and performing, can provide young people with a way to deal with such issues.
"Arts programs have been shown to improve engagement and communication, and lower rates of truancy," he says. "They also promote important life skills, such as problem solving."
A widely cited study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2001 looked at the effects of arts programs on children in Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; and San Antonio. It found that arts programs led to an improved ability to express anger in a healthy manner; more effective communication with adults and peers; better attitudes toward school; and higher self–esteem and self–efficacy.
"Arts programs can create a feeling of success, of ownership," Stahler says. "That can go a long way in raising a child´s self–esteem."
Miner sees that firsthand among her students. "They use PYPM to find themselves, get support and help other kids. Poetry is the vehicle to do all of that."
Page to Stage
Temple´s Department of Theater brings the words of young writers from the page to the stage. Each fall, nine winners of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights´ annual festival see their plays come to life when their work is performed by Temple students, directed by theater professionals and staged at Tomlinson Theater on Main Campus.
"The plays are part of [Temple Theaters´] regular theater season," says David Ingram, the associate professor of theater who produces the program, called New Voices at Temple. "The playwrights are there during rehearsal and are excited to take part in what is essentially their first professional endeavor.
Winners of the New Voices at Temple program have their plays staged by professionals at Tomlinson Theater (above). (Photo credit: Paola Nogueras)
Several PYPM alumni have been featured on the HBO series, Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices.
"The kids realize there is a power behind their writing," he continues. "They put down an idea concretely, and have that idea validated through performance. They realize that what they say is important and that people will listen."
Glen Knapp, CEO of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, says many of the writers infuse the plays with stories from their own lives, hoping for some type of resolution.
"One of our past winners wrote a complex, powerful play about living with an abusive father," Knapp explains. "She presented it as fiction, but we came to understand that it was based on life experience. She was leaving for college, but we believe she wanted to protect her younger sister, who was still living in the house." That young woman found her resolution through her play: Shortly after it was performed, her mother and sister left the house.
The 25–year–old New Voices program is powerful for all involved—playwrights, students and industry veterans, Knapp and Ingram say.
"While the undergraduates who perform these plays and the professionals who direct them teach the writers about the process, the writers educate the students and professionals about their lives and about what´s important to them," Ingram says.
The stage is not the only place where North Philadelphia teens can express themselves. Through the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), Barbara Ferman, professor of political science and UCCP executive director, provides teens and young adults with a different kind of creative outlet.
Since 1997, UCCP has worked with youth in the Philadelphia region through a number of different programs that not only give them an opportunity to talk about what is happening in their lives, but to figure out ways to change those things as well. Each of UCCP´s programs has a video component.
Temple students in the master's program for film and media arts assist participants in assembling public–service announcements and documentaries about issues that are important to them.
Saeed Briscoe, a junior studying film and media arts at Temple, is a UCCP veteran. For the past 12 years, he has been involved with a number of programs within the organization, including VOICES, the UCCP´s flagship program aimed at high school students. VOICES is a mix of leadership training, civic engagement and media production.
Two years ago, Ferman approached Briscoe about a new program—a youth–oriented news broadcast that would air on public access, called POPPYN (Presenting Our Perspective on Philly Youth News).
"I created POPPYN to counteract the negative depiction of young people of color in the media," Ferman says. "The program gives teens and young adults the opportunity to develop stories about positive things and then present them on a sustained basis."
Part of her plan is to inspire young adults to participate in their communities. Data show that exposure to a creative outlet can be a catalyst: According to a study published by the National Endowment for the Arts in March 2012, low–income youths who are exposed to arts programs during their teenage years are more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities and 14 percent more likely to vote in a local election than their counterparts with less arts exposure. In addition, they are three times more likely to earn bachelor´s degrees than their peers.
POPPYN has a year–round production schedule, and new episodes premiere each season. Broadcasts focus on issues such as the National Drop Out Prevention Program (a story Briscoe worked on, during which he met Philadelphia first lady Lisa Nutter), and zero–tolerance policies in schools.
Briscoe says his work with POPPYN exposed him to passionate professionals who guided him and gave him advice.
"POPPYN presents a positive view and sort of knocks those negative stereotypes to the side," he says. "If you tell people they´re bad enough times, they´ll believe it. But if you offer them an alternate viewpoint, it lets them know that that´s not always the case, and that they can do something positive, too."
He adds: "Kids don´t need to believe everything people tell them about themselves."
The Tyler School of Art also empowers Philadelphia youth. This fall, Temple Contemporary (formerly Temple Gallery), as a part of the North Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is helping teens explore opportunities that await them in the arts through a new mentoring program aimed specifically at high school students of color.
A study published by the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance in 2009 found that though the city surpasses the national average of cultural participation in areas such as museum exhibitions, live music shows and theater performances, two in three of those patrons did not return. Robert Blackson, curator of Temple Contemporary, thinks that might be due to a lack of connection between arts management and arts audiences—especially adolescents.
"Across arts administrative roles, there is a lack of people of color, and there are few arts programs that focus on management," Blackson says. "While Philadelphia is head–and–shoulders above other cities in terms of the variety of cultural outlets, this program is a way for teens to see themselves in the arts, and to connect with the arts in a whole new way."
The program matches sophomores and juniors with leaders of cultural mainstays in Philadelphia, such as the Wagner Free Institute of Science—which provides educational programs about natural science and history—and Art Sanctuary, a nonprofit that encourages creative expression among African Americans. The students learn about the business of being creative, and what it takes to produce a great show or exhibition. Blackson says its goal is to introduce more people of color to management roles in the arts.
"This program puts the students in the driver´s seat," he says. "Cultural leaders are listening and taking their advice. Their suggestions could lead to changes in programming in institutions around the country, and that would be huge for their self–esteem."
* Philadelphia Research Initiative. A City Transformed: The Racial and Ethnic Changes in Philadelphia Over the Last 20 Years. Philadelphia: Pew Charitable Trusts. 2011.