From the Field

Art helps at-risk youth survive and thrive

By April 26, 2010March 19th, 2015One Comment

The greatest risk for the development of a writer is self-censorship. Last night, I attended another session of a poetry group with Friends of the Children, where volunteers, mentors, and a therapist all gather to help foster youth express in poetry the anxiety of growing up in unstable situations. And weekly, we remind our teens that they can say anything they wish—they can swear, they don’t have to spell anything correctly, and they can talk about topics that their teachers forbid them to mention—gangs, abuse, rape, fights.

And yet each week, I see these youth decide that something they want to say is not worth saying. They decide these things because they have been previously led to believe that their experience should not be encouraged and validated.

During Seattle University’s first seminar on family homelessness for journalists and scholars, Vince Matulionis of United Way mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of being homeless can be the fact that people do not make eye contact with someone on the street or with someone asking for assistance. Each avoidance, he said, can take a little piece of dignity from someone who is homeless, just like each act of self-censorship robs a piece of confidence from these teens.

Though it is commonly thought that the term “homeless” only refers to someone without a house over their head, the term, as Carol, Cassandra and I are learning, has come to represent a much wider variety of people for whom stable living is an issue—foster youth, detained youth, women who couch-surf to escape domestic violence, or someone who is just about to lose their home. So how does one learn to express oneself, to tell one’s story, when food, housing, and safety are the most immediate concerns?

In dire situations, art is probably the last thing that most people commonly presume could help someone who is fleeing an abusive spouse, recovering from an addiction, or someone who is about to miss a rent check. Yet the youth I work with, the efforts of local groups like First Place and Pongo Poetry, and the outreach of popular slam poets in Seattle all prove that art can be a redemptive force for those struggling to find a stable lifestyle.

In the spirit of community healing through art and the prevention of self-censorship, I’d like to recommend an original, full-length play written by a peer at Seattle University. “The Weather Man,” written by Elizabeth J. Sparenberg satirizes drug addiction by following a boy who is addicted to sunshine and becomes entangled with the harsher aspects of street life. Theatre of Possibilities and PugetSoundOFF hosted a staged reading last Friday, April 23, and the Theatre of Possibilities will be putting together a full performance in the future. To learn more about one group’s work with youth struggling with addiction, violence and transitional housing, check out Pongo Poetry’s blog.

One Comment

  • Elizabeth "BT" Sparenberg says:

    Hey Emily, I just came across this article! I don’t think I got the chance to thank you for coming…so, thank you and thank you for this recommendation as well. This article is really interesting, and I’d like to hear more about your work/insights about homelessness. I would also really like to help work with homeless youth, especially on art/writing-related projects such as the ones you describe here..please keep me updated on your work, and let me know if there is a way I can get involved and help!

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