Thursday, January 31, 2008

Teens learn leadership skills through performing arts

Tucson Green Magazine, February 2008

A group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, teens star in the musical performance they wrote and produced through a City at Peace program in their community. Using the performing arts as a vehicle, City at Peace is a national organization developing the next generation of engaged community leaders and believes in a society where teenagers are valued, respected, and play a leading role in creating vibrant communities.

Imagine a society where teenagers are valued and respected and play a leading role in creating vibrant communities. A national non-profit organization, City at Peace, is making that dream a reality through programs in selected cities around the world.

City at Peace has developed a program for teens, based on the philosophy that the performing arts provide an excellent means for teenagers to create social change while finding their voices as leaders. The project has manifested the idea in a variety of ways, from Israeli and Palestinian youth in Tel Aviv finding common ground through drama, music, and dance, to Washington, D.C. teenagers turning a discussion about stereotypes into an original musical. Inspired by the project's successes, Rev. Gerry Straatemeier of the Culture of Peace Alliance is spearheading an effort to bring City at Peace to Tucson.

City at Peace has chapters in six U.S. cities--Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, New York City, and Baton Rouge--in addition to chapters in Israel and South Africa. The program brings together city youth of diverse backgrounds, teaching them principles of nonviolence through performance art.

The teens go through an intense year-long creative process through which they write an original musical based on stories from their own lives, and on their ideas for a better world. They also create community change projects where they take those ideas and act on them in their own city.

Each year-long program begins with the selection of a Production Team to serve as the program's leaders, recruitment of a diverse pool of teens, and intensive team-building and performance training. Throughout the following months, members learn conflict resolution skills and hold in-depth discussions about issues like stereotypes, bullying, and gang violence, which become the inspiration for the teens' original creative work.

The project reports a number of positive results. Since 2002, 91 percent of City at Peace participants have gone on to college, compared with a national average of 68 percent; 99.3 percent (compared with 71 percent) stay in school; and 92 percent say they now resolve conflicts differently as a result of their City at Peace training. Participants also describe "intangible" results, such as personal empowerment and strengthened relationships.

City at Peace originated in 1994 in Washington, D.C., when teenagers, parents, and community leaders came together out of a shared concern about racial tensions and violence plaguing the city. Founder Paul Griffin, a longtime youth advocate, has been honored at the White House as a Tomorrow's Leader Today and has received the Changemaker Award from Public Allies and the National Hamilton Fish Institute Award for Service for his efforts. He continues to work with City at Peace, currently serving as its president. The project has been featured in a 1995 episode of "Nightline" with Ted Koppel and was the subject of a 1999 HBO documentary entitled "City of Peace." It has recently opened a national office in New York City.

Like the youth in other cities, many young Tucson residents face the reality of violence at home, at school, and on the streets. The 2006 Arizona Youth Survey of Pima County, provided by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, reveals that among tenth graders surveyed, 25 percent have had gang involvement, 15 percent have been involved in a physical fight in school, and 45 percent report family conflict.

Straatemeier hopes that creating a Tucson chapter of City at Peace will help address these problems in our community. The project is currently in the planning stages, concentrating on fundraising and community-building. She said fundraising efforts will comprise two phases. During the planning phase, the goal is to raise $10,000-15,000. Once the project has established itself within the community, she said it will require a budget of about $50,000 to begin core activities. So far, about $7,000 has been raised. Ongoing fundraising activities include a partnership with the Invisible Theatre Company, which allocated a portion of its ticket sales to the project from a January 14 showing of Baghdad Burning, based on the blog of a young woman in war-torn Iraq.

A retired clinical social worker and an independent New Thought minister, Straatemeier is a founding member of the Tucson-based Culture of Peace Alliance and has co-chaired the Gandhi/King Season for Nonviolence in Southern Arizona since 2000.

Straatemeier intends to establish the program with auditions for the 2008 school year. She is looking for funding and for youth aged 13-19 who show a strong commitment to social change, regardless of their skill or experience in the performing arts. Finding participants from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and gender backgrounds will be another key issue. "A diverse group helps confront the many 'isms' that are a part of our culture," she said.

She hopes the program will inspire teens to become leaders who have found their voices. "We envision a new generation of young leaders in Tucson who can change the culture to one of nonviolence."

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