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Julie Lichtenberg: One of the things that I’d say is pretty special about Creative Youth Development is that the young adults who are a part of the project are part of identifying what it is they need, so we call that the “community agreement.” They identify what they need in order to do their best work, to feel respected, to feel welcomed.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Julie Lichtenberg. She is the Director of the Performance Project, and Artistic Director of First Generation Ensemble. We’re in Springfield having this conversation. Welcome to the program.
Julie Lichtenberg: Thank you.
Anita Walker: So tell me a little bit about First Generation. Before we turned the tape recorder on, I made an assumption that First Generation meant that it was somebody who had just moved to America, but you look at it more broadly.
Julie Lichtenberg: Yes. When I first began this community, I was thinking along those lines, and then I realized that a lot of people would be left out, and we wanted to work with young people and be all inclusive. So a colleague of mine and I, we defined the concept of First Generation to include any way that a young person might identify as First Generation. So the obvious one is first to be moving to this country, first to be in a family to be learning English, but it could also be first in one’s family to be identifying as a feminist. It could be the first in one’s family to be openly GBLT, the first in one’s family to be incarcerated, the first in one’s family to break a silence, the first in one’s family to graduate high school or go to college, so we opened it way up to many firsts.
Anita Walker: What do you see as sort of a common denominator about all of those different people you just described?
Julie Lichtenberg: One of the wonderful things about that definition of our group is that we come together to share culture and ideas, and not conform to any one way of being, so in our group many languages are spoken, and I would say the common denominator is everyone is recognizing that it’s pretty exciting to learn about other places, and languages, and people in the world. Yeah.
Anita Walker: So you are part of our, what we call “the Creative Youth Development Cohort,” and this is really a field of practice that only got a name, I think, about two years ago when we held a national summit to really explore and celebrate the work, and all we called it was “the work.” We decided we’d better name it something more than the work, or nobody would know they were supposed to come, so Creative Youth Development has actually become a term and a label for an amazing and a transformative field of practice that is happening all over Massachusetts. So tell us how you work with young people through Creative Youth Development.
Julie Lichtenberg: Okay. One of the things that I’d say is pretty special about Creative Youth Development is that there is an intuitive aspect to it. I, personally, come at it just by trying to be the best human being that I can be, and try to see the young people that I’m working with as the most magnificent human beings, which they are. So I guess when I think about overarching things that we focus on when we’re together, and, of course, the reason for coming together is to create either a large, visual art collaborative piece, or in First Generation’s case, performance, the first thing they focus on is building relationships, and that’s at the very core of what we do, because in order to grow and flourish, which is our goal, and create, we need to have relationships that are going to be supportive, and healthy, and loving, and caring. So we work to create a group culture that really focuses on that, so that it brings out the best in everybody, and all the young adults who are part of the project are part of identifying what it is they need, so we call that “the group agreement” or “the community agreement.” They identify what they need in order to do their best work, to feel respected, to feel welcomed, and we spend a significant amount of time doing that. Part of building relationships is also modeling for young people that it’s okay to ask for help, that we’re not trying to do life in isolation, and because we work with young people who face challenges, they haven’t always developed a practice of being able to talk to adults and ask for help, so that all falls under the umbrella of relationships. We also, the minute they come in the door, we recognize that they have strengths, extraordinary strengths, and we are always working to highlight that, to support them to grow in those strengths, and acknowledge them, and let them know that they have a lot to offer the world. That’s not always the experience they’re getting at school, and that’s certainly not always the experience someone is getting when they’re newly arrived in this country, when they have to give up kind of what they perceived as their strengths to kind of figure out how to navigate life in the U.S.
Anita Walker: I think another big part of that, that I hear from other organizations that are Creative Youth Development, is it’s not looking at the young person as something broken that needs to be fixed.
Julie Lichtenberg: Definitely not, definitely not.
Anita Walker: A lot of times service to youth is seen in a more patronizing way. Do you know what I mean?
Julie Lichtenberg: Well, that’s why I don’t like to call First Generation a project or a program, you know. We are definitely community, because the model that we follow is that we’re all training to become peer mentors, and we’re all an integral part of creating this healthy group. And, you know, the strongest we are is always when there are young adults in the group who have been there for several years, who are helping the ones, the new ones, coming in, supporting them and growing. They can do a far better job than, you know, I in my 50s can do. So, yeah, there is no concept of broken when we’re working together, or fixing, or saving. None of that is in our vocabulary. We also, part of the artistic approach is that we believe that fun is really important, and having fun together and playing together, whether it’s creatively or, you know, going climbing a mountain, or going to see theater and dance performances, but having fun together is really integral to growing and building relationships, as well. Then all that good stuff being said, I have a big thing about establishing, like, a very intense work ethic. And, for me, that is about learning that it’s worth it. It’s worth working really hard, because the rewards are great when you work really hard. And so, in a way, the creative work we do becomes a metaphor for what we can achieve in life moving forward, so I set the bar really high, and at times, you know, over the years, adults and young people have said to me, you know, “This is high school kids. You’re expecting too much.” And I’m like, “Well, the bar is not being set high at this high school, or this high school, or this high school, and I believe that we’re all capable of doing this,” and then we do. And as a result of that, they get to do things that why wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do, like perform on college campuses, do a workshop for adults, you know, and things that make them realize that they have worked really hard, gained significant kills, and it’s opening doors for them. So, for me, a strong work ethic is really, really important as a way of kind of fighting the system, as well, and also beginning to identify what are the personal obstacles that we hold in ourselves that keep us from pushing through to the end of a project, or what are the systemic obstacles that we face.
Anita Walker: Talk about those two concepts and give some examples.
Julie Lichtenberg: So our group has always had an ongoing discussion about racism in America and the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s been a commitment of the Performance Project since we began in 2000 is to recognize systemic oppression and to begin to tease out what are the obstacles that are very, very real that we need to identify, name, and then work to change, and what are the obstacles that perhaps are within individuals that they can identify, name and change, and what are the things that have been internalized from living in this country as a recently arrived immigrant who may be told that they have less to offer because their English isn’t perfect, or, you know, a person of color who the expectations of school may be that they’re going to be a trouble maker by a certain age, or whatever, you know, the isms are. So I don’t know. Does that answer, more or less, to your question?
Anita Walker: Yes, exactly, so the internal obstacle, which could be anything from anger, right?
Julie Lichtenberg: Right. Or lack of confidence, I would say, is the biggest one. And so, you know, when I think about the creative process as an incredible, kind of opportunity to set some things in place for a future, being in a group where it’s safe to take those risks, overcome fear, overcome– having it be okay to be angry and work through it, rather than be kicked out, or feel that there’s no place to express it, overcome self-doubt, or the “I can’t do this” to, you know, “I’m going to try and make it happen.” All those things are opportunities for growth, and will help people set goals for the future, because if you overcome those small obstacles within a safe place on a creative project then maybe you can think about taking that, you know, college class, or taking the next steps in life, so really encouraging young people to dream and vision big is what we, you know, at the core of what we do, as well.
Anita Walker: Do you have a particular story about one of your First Generations to tell?
Julie Lichtenberg: I’m just super excited and proud for where the First Gen youth are right now, many of whom worked with the project since they were fourteen or fifteen and are now twenty-one, twenty-two, and several of them recently arrived in this country or, you know, one as young as ten and one as young as two years ago. They’re all, like, it’s amazing what they’re doing. We have three young women who are at Hampshire College, two of them on James Baldwin scholarships. This one member of First Generation is at HCC, and he’s on the student senate, and he’s on the honors, and he wants to work at the U.N., and still be an artist. He wants to do international diplomacy work. And there’s a lot of young people who are thinking about art therapy, or psychology, or some form of creative work combined with career, so it’s pretty exciting.
Anita Walker: It is exciting.
Julie Lichtenberg: Yes.
Anita Walker: You know, it’s interesting when you were walking through the characteristics of your work, it really does resonate in the way we talk about Creative Youth Development at Mass. Culture Council, the relationship building, the rigor, artistic rigor, taught by professional artist. I like to say it’s not just pasting macaroni on a paper plate. It’s not an activity. Art plus kids is not Creative Youth Development. It is really a field, and an intentional field. And what we love is how many of the organizations that we support, like yours, that have really done a lot of the groundbreaking work in recognizing what the characteristics are, and how transformative it can be for young people, and eventually for our society. At the end of the day, while artistic rigor is sort of at the heart of the matter, we don’t ask that– we don’t measure the success of these programs by saying, “Is the person a better actor, a better painter, a better dancer?” It’s how does the person answer the question, “Do I matter?” and “Can I make a difference in my community,” because they’re built on this platform of social justice, which I think gives so much meaning to the whole process, and relevance to all of us, not just to young people.
Julie Lichtenberg: Absolutely. And, for me, the golden core of it is that, you know, as tired as I’ve become over the years as the Director of a struggling nonprofit, when I ask myself why I continue, I have to say that on Mondays and Wednesdays, which is the very minimum that we meet, because we often meet more, when I’m sitting in the First Generation circle listening to ten languages, and people reading from their journals, and seeing dance, and music, and theater, I realize that we are experiencing the world as we wish it could be, and that that little microcosm gives us all, like, a really dose of optimism, and that I wouldn’t get that anywhere else, you know. I’d have to look hard to find that in the world, so that’s the drug that’s kept me going.
Anita Walker: Julie Lichtenberg, Director of Performance Project at another of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Julie Lichtenberg: Thank you
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