Teen Arts + Tech Program
Inquiry is a tool that can effect great change. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Teen Arts + Tech Program empowers underserved urban teens to identify, explore, and creatively resolve social impact issues in their community. Through a variety of arts- and technology-oriented labs, teens develop artistic, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills, while gaining insights into themselves and others.
West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) initiated this program in 2005 to create a learning environment that is respectful, empowering, and safe. Professional teaching artists nurture the students’ creativity in audio and video production, illustration, and photography, to name a few areas. During 120 hours of after-school studio instruction, as well as summer sessions, these high school students apply the design thinking process to collaborate on and create projects that address social impact questions.
Each question always begins with this phrase: “How might we…?” The teens connect with community partners to identify a need, customize their question, research the issue, and produce a creative solution. For example, the street art team joined forces with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. to address the following: “How might we recognize social justice heroes of color?”
At WMCAT, everyone’s voice has value. During the “heroes of color” research phase, the youth shared their own thoughts and gathered insights from members of the downtown community. One teen admitted that he did not feel comfortable downtown; no one there looked like him or made him feel welcome. Even the art did not represent him. The teens analyzed their findings and chose an artistic solution that would create a positive impact: a mural project representing the diversity of Grand Rapids through heroes of color. With large electrical boxes as their “canvases,” these young artists painted murals depicting Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimi Hendrix, Maya Angelou, and Frida Kahlo.
The teens also participate in learning experiences beyond the primary labs—and Grand Rapids. For example, a partnership with Park Journeys enables them to explore Yellowstone, including camping and hiking. WMCAT’s new Global Youth Forum features video visits and design challenges with young adults in other countries. For juniors and seniors, the prep year program offers additional attention as they apply for college. And, to ensure students’ success, an on-site Department of Health and Human Services case manager provides support.
Throughout their endeavors, the teens make connections among education, creativity, community, and career. Many gain a sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as leadership abilities. These qualities help students stay actively engaged with their community and confidently pursue educational and professional goals. In fact, some program graduates begin working at Ambrose, WMCAT’s commercial screen printing company.
The best thing about being a WMCAT student is learning to see the world differently.Emilio high school junior and member, photography lab, Teen Arts + Tech Program, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT)