Workshop Brings Arts to Teens in Troubled Situations

Posted September 21, 2010 at 5:02pm

Walking through the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop building on 7th and G streets Southeast gives one a sense of what the staff does on a daily basis.

There are paintings hanging here, chairs set up in a black-box theater over there. Up the stairs, someone’s hosting a painting class, and musical instruments are set up in a small practice room. The arts don’t just fill this building — they make this building what it is.

At least, that’s what Executive Director Jill Strachan likes to think.

“It’s a community,” she said as she sat at a table in a multipurpose room.

Since it began in 1972, CHAW has focused on sharing the artistic experience with the people taking classes though the workshop during the year. But every now and then, the goal shifts a bit.

This past year, the nonprofit started working with organizations to bring the arts to places outside of the cozy building, places where the artistry isn’t inherent in the atmosphere.

The group worked with the Vera Institute of Justice to bring arts to teenagers in the D.C. youth corrections facilities in December and May.

The workshop also partnered with the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League in July to work with gay and lesbian teens who have grown up in foster care.

It isn’t the first time that the nonprofit has done outreach, said Amy Moore, the group’s education and programs director. In the past, workshop teachers have come to schools to teach painting or hold a hip-hop dance class for the day.

What’s different about the work done with the D.C. youth corrections facilities and SMYAL is that the programs were tailored to benefit the teens who would be participating in the program.

In the case of the corrections facilities, 80 hours of arts instruction were provided to the teens awaiting their trial dates. Moore described it as giving them a voice for the emotions they were feeling. One calligraphy class allowed the teens to make posters to hang in their cells, posters that often turned into inspirational quotes.

“It’s not quite art therapy, but there is an aspect to it that is inherently transformative,” she said. “These are kids who are in dire situations, and these classes helped them work through that.”

The teens that came through the SMYAL program were going through difficult times as well, Moore said. As children who grew up in foster care, they didn’t have a solid base of support while they explored their sexual identity.

Through a three-day workshop with CHAW, these teens explored the topics by taking photography and dance classes. The classes explored the negative and positive aspects of light and space, serving as a metaphor for the experiences the teens were going through.

At the end of the workshop, the teens answered questions that asked them to view their world in movie terms.

“How are you the director of your world?” was the first question.

“I control the way I live my life,” one teen answered.

“I do what I want, dress the way I want,” another said.

“How do you deal when you feel like an outsider?” another question asked.

“I just keep it to myself and try not to blast my sexuality,” one teen said.

To Moore, the workshop’s partnerships with other organizations are the intersection between what these organizations try to do and the nonprofit’s mission of bringing arts to the community.

CHAW will host Artsmash, its fall fundraiser, Oct. 2. More details can be found at chaw.org.