Out of School Programs
Empower. Create. Connect. These are the core values of the DreamYard Project. But for this nonprofit arts center, located in the South Bronx, those words are not just an empty slogan. DreamYard’s teaching artists see themselves as “social justice educators,” explains Robyne Walker Murphy, director of Out of School Programs. The organization’s aim is to help young people use the arts to explore their worlds, engage their imaginations, and create personal or societal change.
This social justice focus is most evident in A.C.T.I.O.N. (Art Community Teams in Our Neighborhoods), a multi-year program for high school students. Every year, participants select an issue and develop an arts-based campaign to raise awareness and spark dialogue. Concerned about the high rates of HIV/AIDS among young people in the Bronx, for example, participants interviewed HIV-positive youth and incorporated those stories into a documentary, as well as a theater and poetry piece that they performed on the streets of Washington, DC. The project culminated back in the Bronx at a party, where youth received free HIV testing.
Poetry also becomes a tool for connection and commentary in the hands of DreamYard’s students. After writing poems exploring their racial or ethnic identities, members of the Bronx Poetry Project sent a video of their poetry performance to students in Arizona, where some ethnic-studies classes had been cut from the curriculum. “It was an act of solidarity,” Walker Murphy asserts.
The organization also provides visual arts, creative writing, dance, and hip-hop instruction for adolescents and teens, as well classes where younger children work on arts projects with their guardians. This wide array of disciplines is designed to appeal to as many youth as possible in an economically distressed neighborhood, where many lack nurturing environments, Walker Murphy explains. “We can say, ‘You don’t like hip-hop? OK, we have theater. You don’t like theater? We have visual arts.’ ” All classes are free and held in the organization’s art center, on the first floor of an affordable housing complex.
In an area with high drop-out rates, 99 percent of DreamYard’s Out of School Programs’ seniors have graduated from high school, and 98 percent have been accepted into college. Walker Murphy attributes that “huge” accomplishment to the fact that DreamYard “is giving our young people the ability to imagine something new and to master some foundational skills that they can take anywhere.”
Artists can express their feelings or personal experience in their work and realize the pain they’re going through and think of a way to do something about it. Art helps to show people that they are not alone.Justin Cuevas, Participant, DreamYard’s Bronx Art Collective