This week's Gateway Cities Leader
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
How do you engage with the Holyoke community through your role with Enchanted Circle Theater?
I’m invested in youth development and breaking down the barriers to an exposure to the fine arts. Enchanted Circle supports the core curriculum in local schools to bolster engagement, appeal to different learning styles, and make the learning more memorable.
As an ECT Teaching Artists, I have worked on an array of subjects. For example, we get kids to embody cumulus clouds or geometric concepts to support science and math learning. I’ve worked with young people to cultivate self presentation skills and to strengthen their writing by integrating digital media arts with personal narrative writing. The program was through Holyoke Community College’s Gateway to College Program, which supports students at the risk of dropping out of high school in earning their diplomas and in earning credit towards college. I also participated in a Living History program about Shay’s Rebellion in the Amherst Public Schools, where ECT teaching artists collaborate with 5th and 6th grade students to write an original play based around primary source documents.
I really believe that when young people are able to embody history, they have a deeper connection to it. When we come into the classroom, we ask the students to step into the story and embody the experience. When they get the history in their bodies and relate it to their own experience, they’re more likely to form strong memories and retain information.
What do you enjoy about working in Holyoke?
We’re in one of the most underperforming school districts in the state. It’s easy for people to write off an area just because it’s poor or because there are a lot of English Language Learners. A lot of the students in Holyoke come up against systemic challenges. But when I’m working in the schools, I see them engaged and falling in love with learning. There is excellence in Holyoke; all children are capable of excellence. It is my passion to support and be an advocate for youth from all backgrounds.
ECT doesn’t just do top-notch programming. We are also a voice saying that the arts matter. So many arts programs are being cut, but we are demonstrating that they are integral to education, not only because learning to play an instrument or how to draw is enriching, but because the arts and creativity have the power to deepen learning across content areas. We’ve created a myriad of assessment tools to measure student progress, and they prove what we know in our hearts: the arts help learning.
Beyond the mindset that arts are a supplement, what other challenges are you up against?
Some administrators and teachers out there don’t understand how important the arts can be. Culturally, it’s seen as an extra. That’s a hurdle, but we’re savvy at developing assessments and generating outcomes that prove that idea wrong.
Then there are a lot of children who come to school hungry or who haven’t slept because their housing is tenuous. How do you get these students engaged? How do you get them to even show up at school? ECT has been nicknamed “the antidote to the drop out rate.” The kids get excited about the project, and they want to show up. A lot of the challenges we see in our school districts are nation-wide and systemic.
Time can be a challenge; we do so much deep work in a number of schools and with a broad range of community partners. The programming we do in a school is not just a special one-day program — we’ll be in a classroom for a few months. We also work with adjudicated youth and senior centers, and we create custom programs for anyone who wants to work with us. There’s so much going on, but it’s a blessing that we’re able to do it all. We have many brilliant and talented multi-taskers in our organization.
In your first year with Enchanted Circle, what was your proudest moment?
I’m proud of the Gateway to College program that I created and ran. It was part of a credit retrieval program that brought 16 students who had dropped out or were at risk for dropping out of high school to Holyoke Community College for a three-week intensive course. These youth view schools, authority figures, and learning overall as negatives. The school system had failed them, in a lot of respects. They came in with low opinion of what they could accomplish. On top of that, they’re teens, and they’re self-conscious. We came together and did a lot of deep personal and creative exploration together. Eventually, they decided to put together a multimedia personal narrative with video and sound. It was very challenging, both for them and for me. In the beginning, they were all, “This is dumb, this is wack.”
But you could see them starting to form bonds with each other, and they started sharing their stories in an environment that we co-created. They wrote and produced a narrative 11-minute film together. I can still remember their faces when saw finished product. You could see their pride, like “Wow, we made that in three weeks.”
What project do you want to take on next?
I would love to start a full multimedia/digital arts program. I’m a sound designer and media artist by training, and I think that being able to tell stories through technology is so powerful. As the digital age continues, people respond more and more to images and sound. I would love to help bridge the digital divide and the disparity between which students are able to receive a quality fine arts education.
What do you think is special about the community in Holyoke?
This community is really tight knit. The Pioneer Valley is unique in that there are all of these small town-tight knit pockets that are interconnected. The people here are deeply invested in their communities, and they’re involved in community work in a way that I haven’t seen before. I lived in the Bay Area and Washington, DC, and people move here and set up roots here in a way I haven’t seen in other areas. In Holyoke, there is a unique cultural blending that brings the out the best of us.
Are you involved in community projects beyond Enchanted Circle Theater?I’m pretty active in my community outside of work. I’m a voting hub member at Flywheel Arts, a cooperatively arts center in Easthampton. I’m also on the leadership circle/ Board of the Prison Birth Project, an organization that advocates for women at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood. We’re working toward reproductive justice and prenatal care incarcerated women.
Helping people own and recognize their own power is a huge driving force for me. I want every young person and person who is facing the challenges of systemic inequality to know their worth and to realize their own potential. I believe that creativity is a powerful vehicle for change. If you can find and hone and use your own voice, you can cultivate your imagination and imagine a better world. Creativity is such a great catalyst for empowerment and social change.