The Youth Advisory Council: A creative and welcoming respite from the world

Jenn Williams, our Powerhouse Arts Youth Programs Manager recently led the first cohort of the Youth Advisory Council, a program she describes as a creative and welcoming respite from the world. Six brilliant student members between the ages of 14 and 18: Kimberly Castro, Elias J. Leon, Kaliyha Mayers, Liam Rice, Chloe Sanford, and Abigail Roman make up the group. This spring they met every Wednesday from April to June to brainstorm how to best serve youth at Powerhouse Arts, advance personal creative projects, and engage in a variety of artmaking activities. They’re taking a break over the summer but will be back to meeting weekly starting in September. In authoring my second vozarrón piece, I was thrilled to learn about the drive behind this initiative, it’s people-centered values, and the importance of promoting students’ creative agency.

As a young immigrant in High School, I lacked the resources or know-how about pursuing a career in the arts. I often think about young students who excel in their studies but are given no opportunities. For this reason I am drawn to the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) and its promise of a fruitful space for artistic exploration and knowledge sharing among young people. In tune with my mission behind vozarrón, YAC resonates as a platform for conversation, visibility, and celebration.

Jenn’s passion for supporting youth, I learned, was akin to mine in that it began as a teen in Indiana where she felt her resources were limited but was nevertheless full of creativity and vision. Jenn quotes Alice Walker in saying: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” With this, Jenn firmly believes “We all have fuel in our bellies and sometimes we just need a spark to light that fire. Adults don’t necessarily have all the authority and knowledge and often suppress leadership in teens because we’re scared of it.” she says.

This power Jenn identifies is rooted in people-centered values: trust, accountability, and connection. Schools often prioritize what to teach — the curriculum — over the humanity of their students. The YAC program strives for the opposite: building a program around the goals of its participants. From day one, Jenn leaves program parameters and objectives up to its participants with fun remaining at the core of engagement. This sparks curiosity and allows participants to see things differently and debate differences of opinion from a place of creativity and play, critical to fostering a safe space. She often wonders, “If we’re not having fun and activities don’t spark joy then why are we doing them?” She poses this question to teaching artists: “Would you want to do that?”

As a team, we at Powerhouse believe that people are infinite sources of creativity. It is critical that the YAC therefore foster a deep sense of belonging and care among our youth leaders in hopes of creating a space ripe with creative vision. Activities fostered through a collaborative digital “white board” Miro replicates the collaborative power of gathering in a physical space and building an exquisite corpse of creative output.

Barriers to participation is something Jenn actively addresses, therefore, proximity and travel limitations have been addressed by making YAC a flexible program through virtual and in-person activities where students are compensated $20 an hour for their time, work, and creative investment. Though YAC is currently an intensive pilot program, the hope is to create a framework for future iterations of YAC so that it can grow and evolve with each cohort’s needs.

I think the Youth Advisory Council can provide a genuine voice from the youth community of the city. We can give perspective on things that might not be as easily seen by others not just as a whole, but as individual young people with different lives, experiences, and backgrounds.
Liam Rice

I spoke with the YAC participants and they shared their experiences as inaugural members of the Council and their curiosity for the arts. We also spoke extensively about my practice as an artist. I shared about my process of distressing family garments to convey my family’s migrant experience. It was clear that the students were motivated, resourceful, curious, and had genuine fervor for the arts. Some excerpts from our conversations are below:

Why did you choose to participate in the YAC with Powerhouse?

To engage in conversations with professionals, learn from my peers, and be able to gain knowledge I would need now and in my future. Powerhouse gives me the sense of having a real job since I’m committed to completing tasks every week and attending meetings. —Kimberly Castro

What excites you about your youth leadership role at Powerhouse?

We have a voice and opinion that holds weight. Our opinion matters. —Elias J. Leon

The impact I can have. —Kaliyha Mayers

How do you see your voice affecting the organization at large?

I think the Youth Advisory Council can provide a genuine voice from the youth community of the city. We can give perspective on things that might not be as easily seen by others not just as a whole, but as individual young people with different lives, experiences, and backgrounds. —Liam Rice

What are your hopes and expectations for YAC?

To create more opportunities for artists. —Chloe Sanford

How might your peers respond to your role with YAC?

I got into something that I like and I’m helping to create it. —Abigail Roman

In closing, Jenn envisions YAC as a living cycle composed of intergenerational learning with hands-on experience. She envisions information flowing from staff to youth and youth to staff. She hopes that YAC will be composed of reading groups, small interest groups in and outside of Powerhouse, and an alumni network that offers resources and ongoing workshops. Given the shared enthusiasm for intergenerational learning at Powerhouse, I’m confident that the YAC will continue to find inquisitive and enthusiastic voices in the organization’s development.