arts and positive youth development

The Arts are a ‘Natural’ for Positive Youth Development

The arts are a natural for positive youth development. Relevant and engaging, they meet youth where they are and empower them to move forward. Here’s one very clear success story — just one out of hundreds that happen throughout our country every day.

One two three, one two three, one two three … Natalie was in a groove and the ensemble was cookin’. Natalie stayed with that simple beat, rode it out to the end, then finished in perfect time. She beamed as the audience roared in appreciation, and if you hadn’t known her you would not have believed that one year ago she’d been unable to count rhythmically or sit still for more than 5 minutes.

But those of us who’d known her before – who’d seen her eyes light up at that first simple beat and watched her grow as she learned to focus, to listen, and to succeed – we knew what had happened. Natalie had found herself through the arts.

The challenges Natalie once faced are growing more common every day. Attention deficits, oppositional defiance, and incidents of youth violence and suicide have increased. We believe it’s due to a society that’s become increasingly preoccupied with materialism. As our focus has gone off taking care of our kids, the opportunities for to them to discover and express their voice have diminished. An after-school arts setting can fill this need –  – especially when implemented with an effective strengths-based approach.

Positive youth development mitigates mental health issues

The arts aren’t only for healing, of course. Anything that can generate healing can also mitigate or even prevent illness. We can see that clearly in cultures where the arts are alive and well.

In many cultures, the arts serve as a cohesive fluid of community. People get together informally through music, dance or song to relax and enjoy themselves and each other, with the performance aspect of art secondary to a self-participatory way of being together.

These often impromptu gatherings create a feeling of community in which all can share the human experience in an upbeat way through a universal language. This creatively expressive resonance with others can be reassuring and therapeutic.

The arts create common ground

Because the arts can convey meaning without words they can create common ground, connecting and bonding people together in ways that transcend culture, race, language, negativity, and other often divisive factors. This kind of participation is often a much easier and more enjoyable way to move forward as individuals and as a society. It can also be a way of expressing feelings that are difficult or make us feel too vulnerable, a way of expressing love and a need for others, a way of alleviating a lot of the pressures that life normally and naturally brings.

The arts are also capable of moving us out of our normal frame of thinking because they heighten feelings, and being accepted in our self-expression can lead us to more readily accept others. When that happens – even momentarily – we are more apt to let in something new, to accept things outside ourselves.

A good example of this is when we share a really heightened experience with people whom we perceive to be different from us, one that so impacts us that we are taken out of our normal sense of reality. At that moment we jointly experience a new reality and a new commonality. Most of us value this kind of experience.

The healing process of a creative community also involves an external experience that reduces isolation, a way of translating and processing with others. It’s an experience that is strengths-based and upbeat, beyond psychopathology, and not burdensome to others. So much in life is communicated without words, goes beyond words, and is beneficial for all people whether they suffer severe challenges or not.

It seems that our nation is ready for real social change now, for a reversal of the increasing violence, polarization, and isolation. Addressing fundamental human conditions and finding positive, common, truthful ways to express them will cultivate the soil to put us on new ground. This will allow for emotional understandings which will be educational for all involved, enabling us to go beyond an orientation of treating symptoms towards one of gaining an effective understanding of underlying problems.

The arts as a prevention

We need to work towards prevention, and this can only occur through understanding root causes. In the same way, we need to have a deeper engagement with at-risk and challenged people of all ages, a more contemporary, grass-roots, flexible engagement that takes their feelings and strengths more seriously. When we do, we will be a part of their growth so that when – like Nate – they beam with satisfaction at their success, we will truly share in their joy.

It’s the rare person who doesn’t face some sort of challenge in his or her life; how much better for us all if we could reassess some of our perceptions and look deeper into ourselves and each other. The arts provide wonderful opportunities for all of this.

Just imagine how many Natalies there are around our country. It’s not just them who lose; we’re all the poorer for not having their participation in our communities. I believe we need the personal will to start to turn things around – and I can’t imagine any group better equipped to do so than the after-school arts mentoring community.

Trouble in Mind,
Lord I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always.
You know the sun’s gonna shine
In my back door one day.

Lyrics from Trouble in Mind, a traditional Blues song

Read Bill Rossi’s Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Succeed for more.


arts and positive youth development

Mary Helen Rossi
Mary Helen Rossi
A creative writer, Mary Helen is passionate about empowering marginalized youth, believing that everyone deserves a solid chance in life.

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