Creative Solutions

Meet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent

We are excited to introduce a new series on the Big Thought blog from the perspective of an alumnus from our youth development programs. Chris has been participating in Creative Solutions for several years, helped create a new online platform for youth voice called We the Person, served as an AmeriCorps intern during the summer, and was part of the inaugural Artivism performing arts show this past year. Stay tuned for more of his articles in the future, and get to know him better in this first post…

I’ve been an artist since I was born. I was always that kid in elementary school off to the side drawing something instead of doing my work. I started sketching higher quality art when I moved on to the 6th grade and also started doing origami and selling it for some change.

For me, drawing was never enough. My performing potential first started to show at the age of 13. Of course, I was standoffish and reserved in the beginning of my creative lifestyle, but that went away over the course of a year or so thanks to the collective acceptance and support from the audience.

My first on-stage experience was at Southern Methodist University during the summer which paved the road to at least 10 more stage performances. Once you set foot on stage, you become the center of attention. What we do with that attention defines who we are.

Chris MoralesMeet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent
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Social Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual

Social emotional learning, also known as “soft skills,” isn’t a new phenomenon. But it is rapidly gaining momentum nationally as educators, employers and even economists recognize the value of developing the whole individual, not just academic readiness. In this three-part series, we look at social emotional learning from a human interest standpoint, as a burgeoning local and national movement, and as an investment in the future through a grant from The Wallace Foundation awarded to Dallas ISD and Big Thought to create SEL implementation in the district.

Social Emotional Learning At Work

Here’s a story about emotional redemption: A teenager on probation enters the Creative Solutions 2016 summer program at Southern Methodist University. He’s withdrawn, non-verbal, can’t even make eye contact. He has closed off the world in his attempt to hide behind a broken soul.

Two weeks into his work with Creative Solutions, a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, SMU and Big Thought that teaches performing and visual arts to teen probates, proves cathartic. He suddenly felt comfortable enough to write down his emotions and recount past traumas through poetry.

“A couple more weeks later and he felt safe enough to share those with his mentors,” says Allison Caldwell, Youth Development Specialist at Big Thought. “During the very last week of the program, he decided that he wanted his words published in the poetry anthology and that his poem was worthy of sharing in front of an audience. His voice shook towards the beginning, but his confidence grew as he felt the support from his peers.”

Writing was the salve, the elixir that helped this teenager overcome depression. “His story is the perfect example of the beginning of a journey towards social emotional growth,” says Caldwell. “He reflected on his emotions and experiences, connected with others, and was beginning to learn how to manage his emotions.”

There you have social emotional learning at work, its transformative powers in full throttle. But what exactly is social emotional learning, and why has it become a national buzz phrase in education? According to CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Caldwell has spent more than five years applying social emotional learning to her work with Creative Solutions and DaVerse Lounge, the spoken word program for middle and high school students in partnership with Journeyman Ink.

“Social emotional skills exist on a continuum – you can never truly master a skill, rather you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships as you practice social and emotional competencies,” she says. “All of our programs at Big Thought are infused with opportunities for kids to develop SEL skills.”

Photo: Creative Solutions students triumph onstage after last summer’s “The Island of Lost Souls” performance at Southern Methodist University. Photo by Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio.


Big ThoughtSocial Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual
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The Art of Teaching: Meet Holly Lapinski

Home Base: Wylie

Big Thought Teaching History: 16 years, incorporating Learning Partners, Creative Solutions, Make a Connection Through Art programs. Now Creative Solutions, including the summer program at Southern Methodist University and other CS assignments.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Art from Montana State University.

Teaching Philosophy: “I just really want them to have a positive experience,” Holly says. “I want to share what I do with young people. It’s really all about feeding into what we become as adults and their place in society as a whole. We need to expose kids to art, to a creative outlet, so they can develop an interest in something other than getting in trouble. I want them to have something positive to focus on so they can make better choices and have great opportunities.”

Why is Big Thought Important? “Big Thought is a great connection to the local arts world. Meeting somebody that was part of Young Audiences of North Texas, as the organization was at that time, connected me to the arts community. That community is small compared to the overall population. Big Thought gave me what I always wanted, to be part of citywide arts and make art with kids. I make a big mess with the kids and then send them home.”

Rewards of Teaching Big Thought Students: “When I take the kids through pottery, which is a long process, and they see it all done they realize they have made something that lasts or is even useful,” she says. “It’s such an incredible experience for them. You take this lump of clay and sometimes it takes weeks to get things finished. When I open the kiln and all their pieces are in there, it’s amazing that these kids didn’t know anything at first, and now they feel so much pride in their work. It’s also important for kids to have the experience of doing something that isn’t instant gratification. It’s really satisfying to teach them an art form that rewards patience.”

– Mario Tarradell

Photo: Holly Lapinski imparts her knowledge of art with two students at an art exhibit. 

Big ThoughtThe Art of Teaching: Meet Holly Lapinski
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Making Creativity Count: New Year Wishes for Big Thought Kids

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

There’s no stopping the New Year train now. The holidays are rapidly becoming a rear view mirror memory and January 2017 is already cruising along. We have about 360 days to make a mark, to make our imagination and creativity count.

So with that in mind, we at Big Thought are of course thinking of the kids that we serve. We have those young lives foremost in our hearts. Our mission, our programs, our efforts are all about enriching their abilities to learn. We are ramping up our six programs – Creative Solutions, Dallas City of Learning, DaVerse Lounge, Learning Partners, Library Live! and Thriving Minds – for another year of greatness.

Some of our Big Thought staffers got to pondering those opportunities for so many kids in Dallas. They filled in the rest of this sentence:

My New Year wish for our kids is…

…that they find the spark that ignites their passion and the world unfurls its red carpet on their path to pursuing that passion.
Leila Wright, Senior Manager, Programs

…that they regularly experience joy.
Anne Leary, Major Gifts Officer

…to lead extraordinary journeys in life with harmony, hope and love.
Mary Hernandez, Community Engagement Specialist

…that their imagination be sparked so they experience the joys of life-long learning.
LeAnn Binford, Director of Big Thought Institute

…that they will find inspiration and a spark that ignites a passion.
Brandon McKnight, Graphic Designer

…that they never suffer, and live a happy life full of cool adventures, laughter, love and childish play for their rest of their beautiful lives.
Jose Sosa, Communications Manager

…that they feel successful in at least one way, each and every day.
Kristina Dove, Program Manager, Partner Relations

Photo credit: Brandon McKnight/Big Thought

Big ThoughtMaking Creativity Count: New Year Wishes for Big Thought Kids
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Tiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt Make Creative Solutions Dreams Realities

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Tiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt are pressed for time. Rehearsals begin momentarily for The Island of Lost Souls, the 2016 culminating performance for students of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions summer program at Southern Methodist University. So Johnson and Moffitt, the artistic force behind this year’s stage musical, have just a few minutes to chat.

Their passion, however, is timeless. This is Johnson’s second year as choreographer, a role perfectly suited for a talented actress and dancer who recently completed a month-plus run as an ensemble cast member of Dallas Theater Center’s production of Dreamgirls. SMU is home turf for this recent graduate who completed her Master of Fine Arts in theatre this past spring.

Moffitt’s Creative Solutions history dates to 2009 when as an SMU freshman he served as assistant scene designer. He was scene designer from 2010-2013 and became artistic director in 2015. Moffitt earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre during spring 2013. He also has a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Together they drive the always-anticipated Creative Solutions culminating performance, the crowning achievement that caps seven weeks of work with teen students on probation after being convicted of a crime. Since 1994 Creative Solutions has been giving second chances to teen probates by teaching them life skills through performing and visual arts.

“Because they have had so many walls placed in front of them, they don’t realize they have a voice worth being heard that needs to be heard,” says Moffitt. “So when they realize that they do have a voice among their peers and community members, they take that realization with them into the world. Knowing you have a voice worth being heard makes you walk into the world differently. They have been silenced so long that this program is about them finding their voice, breaking that silence. To be a productive citizen you need to understand that you have a voice. Society improves when we all share our voices and our stories.”

The students are doing just that during The Island of Lost Souls, the Creative Solutions original musical that premieres Thursday, July 28, at 1 pm at the Greer Garson Theatre inside SMU’s Owen Arts Center, which is part of the Meadows School of the Arts. Subsequent Island performances are at 7 pm July 28 and 1 pm July 29.

The Island of Lost Souls tells the story of three kids who journey into an unknown adventure to rescue their friend Freddy who has disappeared into the mysterious “island.” But when it comes time for all the kids to return to the “land of the living,” Freddy must make his choice: Stay on the island or return to earth and face his problems.

The new musical serves as a companion piece for last year’s Club Generation, which dealt with the topical subject of police overuse of lethal force. The Island of Lost Souls takes that issue into bigger picture territory and presents a story the addresses the divide between kids and adults fueled by stereotypes. Adults don’t believe kids solely because they see them in a certain light, because they can’t identify with them.

It’s all about validation. The idea that I exist and you can’t silence me just because you have some preconceived notion of me. Validation is paramount for Creative Solutions, and Johnson sees it regularly while working with the students.

“It’s important even before the culminating performance,” says Johnson, the former Miss South Dallas who is part of Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company for 2016-2017.

“When the program starts we find out what everyone else wants to do, even that is already validation. It’s important to have balance, to make them work hard so that the validation is deserved at the end for the work they have done. We keep a record of what they do well and what they need to work on so knowing what they do well validates them. We give them job skills. The applause is that big bow-wrapped gift as validation at the end of the performance.”

There is a complete transformation during those seven weeks, a transformation that manifests itself in that culminating performance. The students are fortified by artistic skills (music, acting, drumming, dancing, writing, singing), life skills, job skills, story sessions, brainstorming ideas, open expression, script work, choreographing, and stage blocking. Johnson, who received rave reviews for her performance in DTC’s The Mountaintop last year, sees the very unvarnished side of that metamorphosis.

“Sometimes you can see a lot of fear,” says Johnson. “Fear is a very human thing when you are stepping up to the plate to do something you have never done. I’m afraid but I’m going to go forth and do this. The joy and confidence that comes out of that is amazing to see. Building community, working as a unit, and that every piece of the puzzle matters. I help you. You help me. We are all a part of this bigger idea. They see a bigger picture and they see how they fit into it. Understanding my world as a human being in life, how I influence the movement.”

For Moffitt and Johnson, watching dreams materialize in disenfranchised students that never thought they’d have the voice to make their innermost wishes come through, much less the wherewithal, is an immensely rewarding experience.

“I want to see these kids realize their potential,” says Moffitt. “Just because they came from this neighborhood doesn’t mean they have to turn out this way. I love hearing their stories when they are speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people. I love being in a room with people from different backgrounds, communities. Their stories excite me.”

Johnson sees a little bit of herself in these students. She sees the passionate desire to be creative. She sees their raw need to live the dream.

“These are people who don’t understand the potential that they have, or they do see the potential but the circumstances don’t allow that potential to grow,” says Johnson. “I can see myself in that. I am living my dream, so I know that it is possible. It’s isn’t an abstract idea. It isn’t unattainable. I can look at someone and see that it is possible.”

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, Sammons Enterprises, Inc., The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.

 

 

Big ThoughtTiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt Make Creative Solutions Dreams Realities
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Kayla Gilchrist Walked a Fateful Path to Creative Solutions

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Kayla Gilchrist walked a path that led her to Big Thought’s Creative Solutions. But at first, she had no idea this is where she was headed.

The 21-year-old from Keller, Texas, a soon-to-be-senior at Prairie View A&M University, is an ExxonMobil Community Summer Jobs Program Intern with Creative Solutions, a respected program that teaches performing and visual arts to juveniles convicted of a crime. Gilchrist initially wanted to intern at the South Dallas Cultural Center, but there were no openings. Harold Steward, manager of South Dallas Cultural Center, led her to the ExxonMobil Community Summer Jobs Program website. It was there that she found Big Thought’s Creative Solutions.

Gilchrist, majoring in mass communications with a minor in theater arts, felt Creative Solutions was a perfect fit, since her passion is theater, particularly acting with some singing and dancing. She has performed in middle school, high school, college, and community theater productions.

“This is why I jumped at the chance to come to Big Thought,” says Gilchrist, “because they are teaching these kids through the performing and visual arts.”

Her job centers on Creative Solutions’ Summer Program at Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts. Gilchrist is part of the CS administrative staff. She supervises files for 60-80 students, takes attendance, puts together paperwork for Big Thought contractors including the Dallas County Juvenile Department, participates in sessions, and mentors students in performing arts. Yet perhaps most importantly, Gilchrist lends a sympathetic ear for kids who need to talk. She gives them support.

Gilchrist took a break from her Creative Solutions duties at SMU to talk about a job experience she says she will never forget.

How do you feel during those sessions with the kids?
“I feel this work is extremely important; stuff like this changes their life. They like to talk, it makes them feel better. One of them said that me and [Creative Solutions teaching artist] Alejandro Perez, Jr. are the people that make them smile. This program gives them something to do; it keeps them out of trouble. This is giving back to the community. It’s awesome watching them discover their hidden talents.”

What does art mean to you, especially in relation to Creative Solutions?
“I always knew that art could be impactful, but now I see that art can change anybody. They are just normal kids and coming here and finding this art and finding their hidden talent is really enlightening. Creative Solutions gives me a different perspective on inner city youth. It really changed my perspective.”

How crucial is the Creative Solutions safe haven for these kids?
“Sometimes they feel safer and better here than at home. For many of them there is no comfort and freedom to make art at home. Here they have it. They open up. They can be themselves. They realize, ‘I’m good at something.’”

How did you find your own talent?
“When I was just starting out I was dabbling. It wasn’t really until my theater arts teacher and my parents believed I could do it that I truly realized it. They gave me validation, and sometimes all you need is someone to believe in you in order for you to believe in yourself.”

Do you feel like you were meant to work with these kids, to be part of Creative Solutions?
“I feel like I am a role model for these kids. To whom much is given, much is required. I feel like I was led here for a reason. If I ever write about my life, I will definitely write about this experience.”

Big Thought thanks the following donors for their generous support of Creative Solutions: Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Anonymous, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, ExxonMobil Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, TurningPoint Foundation, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund.

Big ThoughtKayla Gilchrist Walked a Fateful Path to Creative Solutions
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Creative Solutions Forever Connects Christian and Diego

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Christian and Diego are forever connected through their life-altering involvement in Big Thought’s Creative Solutions summer program at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Creative Solutions teaches art to juveniles convicted of a crime, giving them a second chance at an enriching future.

So they spend hours each day inside the Owen Arts Center – Christian exercising his muse in the performing arts theaters, and Diego creating colorful masterpieces in the visual arts workroom.

Yet one is a returner and one is a newcomer. Returners started the summer 2016 program on June 14, while newcomers commenced on June 15. Both continue through the official close of this year’s program with the culminating performance July 29.

Sitting down to gather thoughts from Christian and Diego underscored the many similarities shared between a teen who knows the ropes and one just learning the scene. They both need to be validated, they crave the opportunity to be expressive, and they relish the nurturing vibes of an encouraging environment.

Take a look at these mini profiles, and see them at work in the photos. We need to be respectful of their identities in pictures and in text. But their personalities, their will to matter, always shine.

Christian M.

Fifth year Creative Solutions student

Age: 17

Art interests: Acting, singing, dancing, poetry

What brings you back?

“The experience of being onstage, having the chance to have my work out there, be myself but at the same time be someone completely different onstage,” says Christian. “I like getting to meet new people and see some old faces. Although it feels good to have an audience, it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t one because I know the work I put into it. I know that I did it and that’s the most important part.”

What is the power of Creative Solutions?

“It gives me a backbone. There is a ton of support here and tons of love. It is freeing. It’s an open place. It lets you express yourself like you want to express yourself.”

Does this feel like family?

“Of course! Some days there is no place I would rather be than here. It’s an open place, a welcoming place. There are people here that understand me better than I understand myself. Although there are some people that annoy you sometimes like brothers and sisters, those are the bonds that never go away.”

Diego A.

First year Creative Solutions student

Age: 15

Art Interests: Mosaic, drawing, painting, ceramics

What brings you here?

“I want to express myself,” says Diego. “I like to feel independent. I like to work on my art at my own pace. In ceramics, making a cup or doing a statue, it has my print in it. It feels great because it is something that I’m doing that I can be proud of.”

What is the power of Creative Solutions?

“For me it’s an awesome experience. I thought it was going to be just one of those probation programs. It keeps me off the streets. I do what I like to do. I enjoy myself.”

Does this feel like family?

“I feel like I can relate to a lot of people here because most of us have gone through the same things,” says Diego. “We all felt pain at some point. Nobody judges you. No matter who you are or what you did, you are treated with respect. We come from the same places; we grew up in the same places.”

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.

 

Big ThoughtCreative Solutions Forever Connects Christian and Diego
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Creative Solutions Lights the Way Back for 12,000 Students

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

The day is unapologetically sunny, a gorgeous early summer vibrancy tamed by the canopy of trees lining Southern Methodist University’s Bishop Boulevard. There is brightness here; a glowing hue that charts a path like a lighthouse illuminates the way back for a wayward ship.

Alonzo C., an 18-year-old student of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, sits on a couch lining the Owen Arts Center’s second floor. Below him are the Bob Hope and Margo Jones Theatres. This is Alonzo’s fourth year in the Creative Solutions summer program at SMU’s Algur H. Meadows School of the Arts, a seven-week, arts-driven series of sessions that ends in a culminating performance July 28 and 29.

Like most of the 12,000 students embraced by Creative Solutions since the program’s inception in 1994, Alonzo found his way back after being convicted of a crime and experiencing probation.

“When I first started it was 2013, I used to be quiet and shy,” says Alonzo. “Each year helped me become more and more talkative. It made me feel like people actually do care for you. They want to help you overcome what you are going through, and they never judged me.”

Alonzo found his muse for singing, dancing and performing arts through Creative Solutions. He found his confidence. He found his empowerment. Alonzo now has a job, he stays out of trouble, and he can see a future.

“I learned that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” he says. “Creative Solutions helped me to not go back. I’m not a bad kid, but I know that without this I would probably go back. But I am serious now.”

Creative Solutions has come a long way in its 22-year existence. Back when Big Thought’s Lisa Schmidt founded the program, working closely with probation officers and the Dallas County Juvenile Department, it was all very “intuitive,” she says. “We felt it would work. We did not know the science behind it. Now with all this data, we are able to use it to redesign our programs to make them more effective and more scientifically based. They are now data driven.”

The Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) analysis of the past two Creative Solutions summers revealed that 41 percent of youth increased their social skills by more than 5 percent, which is considered statistically significant. Also, 40 percent of youth decreased their problem behaviors score by more than 5 percent, also statistically significant.

At the heart of that social-emotional learning is Big Thought’s Program Specialist Allison Caldwell, who in 2011 became Projects Director with Creative Solutions. Caldwell, who works day in and day out with the CS students, feels deep-rooted, emotional compassion for these kids whose lives have been anything but idyllic. These are kids stuck in a potentially widening opportunity gap.

Caldwell counts on the character-building work of Creative Solutions teaching artists Alejandro Perez, Jr. and Menkiti Rice, both instrumentally involved in the CS summer program at SMU, to take these kids through a psychologically fortifying two months.

“Everybody starts in a different place and leaves in a different place,” says Caldwell. “Some kids come in more wounded than others and have more work to do. They all leave taller, more confident at connecting with others because they can’t make it through the program without improving.”

Making it through, using that beacon to find your way to a safer, more fulfilled place, remains the goal. “For many kids this may be the first thing in their lives they actually finish,” says Caldwell. “That public embrace at the end is new for them. To be seen, heard, validated and not shamed is very empowering.”

How do those seven weeks go by? With singing, dancing, playing drums on water jugs and Home Depot buckets, writing poetry, doing calisthenics, chanting motivating mantras, making mosaic art pieces, sitting at the pottery wheel, working on your eye contact and posture, learning to shake hands with adults and mentors, finding the right words to express yourself, taking the time to solve conflict, being open-minded, seeing conflicts from other perspectives. It’s all about self-exploration, connecting with others through empathy, communication and collaboration, and self-regulation.

“Don’t just do something, stand there,” says Caldwell. “We teach them to take a pause before they react. If you have been through trauma it is harder to control your emotions. That’s because they are inherent survival instincts.”

Surviving morphs into prospering and the evolution begins. Sixteen-year-old David O. is back for a second year of Creative Solutions at SMU. His specialty is acting and creative writing, so that culminating performance at the end of July is paramount. He’s grown confident with singing and creative writing. He also has a summer job now that nourishes him with healthy responsibilities.

“I like this,” says David about Creative Solutions. “I wanted to see how it would be the second year; see if it was the same. I want to be part of that performance again. It’s important that I be there. If I’m not there I’m not doing my part and everybody else suffers. If I’m there I help out and we make the play a whole lot better.”

That’s the spirit of the Creative Solutions family. These kids start as strangers verbally opposed to each other and end as friends united by the will to bond. “It really becomes this tight knit group of support,” says Caldwell. “Kids you never thought would work together are in a room working toward a common goal. There is always intolerance at the beginning and then it turns into acceptance.”

Alonzo is living proof. The loner walked in never expecting to connect, only to walk out with a new set of friends. “They opened up to me so I opened up to them,” he says. “They changed my plans.”

“We have seven weeks to trust each other like a family,” says Alonzo. “You feel pride and accomplishment about that performance. They make it easy for us to do that performance because they make the environment safe.”

And the lighthouse illuminates another path.

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.

 

 

 

 

 

Big ThoughtCreative Solutions Lights the Way Back for 12,000 Students
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A Journey Paved With Real Stories

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

I’m the flaky friend because you think I never want to hang out
But I’m not flaky, just poor

Dyslexia shouldn’t affect my GPA
And I don’t know if anyone has noticed but African-Americans
Aren’t treated for that either
When we teach my people to become aware
Kids like me will get somewhere

Growing up there was always a way to scrape together dinner
From Ramen noodles, bacon and cheese
Whatever was in the fridge

This is racism and poverty as seen through the eyes of our youth. These are real stories. These are real people.

A dozen young adults, all of them between 16 and 24 years old, shared “Journey With Me” Wednesday morning, April 13, 2016 before an audience filled with education influencers, members of philanthropic foundations, civic-minded individuals and passionate crusaders with educational non-profit organizations.

The 2016 State of Texas and Dallas Children: Breakfast Briefing and Community Workshop, a joint event from The Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Communities Foundation of Texas and Dallas Faces Race, took place at the Communities Foundation of Texas headquarters. The purpose of the daylong forum was threefold – learn the latest data on Dallas kids, use that data in your work, as well as talk about the racial and ethnic disparities in the data; discuss opportunities for kids to compete and succeed in life regardless of income, gender, race or ethnicity; and develop, advance local and state policy solutions.

“Journey With Me” was undoubtedly the moving highlight of the breakfast portion, which also included an address by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Directed by Ruben Carrazana, “Journey With Me” encompassed spoken word, poetry, rapping and an original song, “Who,” written by Evan Borne.

The performers stemmed from three groups of young artists – Creative Solutions Alumni, SMU Meadows School of the Arts students, and Dallas Youth Poets. Carrazana, Borne and Brandon Wright are freelance artists. The talented and bravely forthright storytellers were: Frankie Zuniga, Christina Sittser, Ladarris Fannin, Faith McElroy, Mikaela Brooks, Gabrielle Edwards, Carson Wright, Curtis Faulkner, Jonathan Tyler, Lilie Zuniga and DeJahn Carr.

Once they entered the banquet room they immediately dispersed, each storyteller standing before a table of guests. On cue they began to tell their personal stories of racism, poverty, and in some cases, privilege. This wasn’t a script. These were self-penned life narratives about their very authentic troubles.

“This is a real person, not just a statistic,” says Tyler. “To open up to each other, to open up to the audience…these are real stories, real struggles.”

Take the data, the hard numbers, and give them a human spin.

“We are bringing all these individual stories together to create a unified story, so that this one story can represent everyone’s story,” says Carrazana, who watched his performers from the soundboard. “The people at this conference are trying to connect with the youth as opposed to just seeing numbers and data. They want that human connection.”

They got it. Some stories brought folks to tears. Some stories made folks uncomfortable. Some stories inspired folks take cell phone pictures. Some stories prompted folks to stand and clap. All stories made an impact.

“There are similarities among all of them – themes, words,” says Carrazana. “So by looking at the smaller pictures, you make it easier to imagine the bigger pictures.”

Yet that bigger picture proved crystal clear once the performers made their way to the stage. The group monologue, comprised of choice lines from the individual stories, weaved in sobering facts provided by the Center for Public Policy Priorities:

  • Nearly one in five Latino children in Dallas County is uninsured
  • 27 percent of kids in Dallas County are food insecure or at risk of hunger
  • 59 percent of Latino students in Dallas County attend high poverty school districts
  • 77 percent of black students in Dallas attend schools with high teacher turnover
  • 30 percent of kids in Dallas County live in poverty

And with that the performance ended with a standing ovation. As we all gathered in our huddle room down the hall, the performers exchanged comments about the experience. They came together during five rehearsals in the span of one month. They got to know each other as people, not merely fellow actors.

“I was really impressed with how much people were willing to share,” says Sittser, whose story of academic achievement was tempered by her realization that she was largely lucky. “That is really beautiful.”

Faulkner, who broke into tension-relieving impromptu miming before performing, “really liked the flexibility” of the piece. “It was not really fleshed out, but it was just…do it. I really liked the collaborative aspect.”

These young adults collaborated once more for a group picture. As they posed you could feel the connection. They are bonded by the experience, by the honesty, and by the stories.

Big ThoughtA Journey Paved With Real Stories
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Dallas Youth Poets Fly High on Spoken Word

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

When can paper airplanes propel teens into the wonders of poetry? When you decorate those flying sheets with choice lines from the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

With paper planes in hand, six teens forming the Uncle Walt and Aunt Emily teams tossed them toward a couple of octagons taped to the floor – one encircling the letter “E” and the other surrounding the letter “W.” The planes that cleared the octagons became inspiration for a poetry and prose writing assignment.

Teamwork, even in poetry, is vital. That was a key mantra of the Dallas Youth Poets workshop held Saturday afternoon, Jan. 23, 2016 at Big Thought’s Blue Room.

Dallas Youth Poets, which was founded by internationally renowned spoken word artist Joaquin Zihuatanejo, provides youth with a platform to hone their performance poetry skills and share their voice. Dallas Youth Poets is part of a partnership with Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program. DYP’s free, spoken word poetry workshops are always open to anyone under 19.

Teaching artists for the workshops comprise a group of local spoken word artists and educators, including John Oberly, Thom Browne III, who is also a DaVerse Lounge consultant, Princess McDowell, and Terry Odis, a DaVerse Lounge teaching artist.

Zihuatanejo took the lead during the recent Saturday workshop, taking the six teens on a fun yet intense ride through online poetry searches, creative writing assignments and impromptu 30-second monologues. The kids even got a three-minute stretch exercise session courtesy of Oberly’s peaceful instruction.

“We strive to find new and inventive ways for students to not only research poetry of master poets, in this case Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but we also want to find innovative ways to have students approach the blank page and not be intimidated by it,” says Zihuatanejo.

But there is also a greater goal at all DYP workshops. Students can earn points toward the ultimate aim – a spot on the 2016 slam team that will participate in local and national youth poetry competitions. Team members will be selected at an area wide youth poetry slam to be held April 8.

The participants rack up points as well as valuable experience by attending the workshop; by witnessing the upcoming DaVerse Lounge shows Feb. 5 and April 1 at Life in Deep Ellum; by winning the airplane toss (Uncle Walt’s team was the victor); and by participating in the impromptu spoken word exercises.

The students were charged with reciting on-the-spot, 30-second monologues centered on one of three topics: the best TV show currently, the worst person ever, or the worst jellybean flavor. Then it was researching and reciting an Emily Dickinson poem. Helpful critiques on vocal inflections, stage presence, pacing and posture from Zihuatanejo, Oberly and Browne followed each impromptu spoken word performance.

“These workshops not only help them write and express themselves, but literally opens their eyes to new people and experiences,” says Browne, who has taught creative writing for Big Thought through DaVerse Lounge and Creative Solutions. Browne and Oberly spearheaded Dallas ISD’s first ever Spoken Word Poetry class for credit.

For the students at the workshop, the experience was enriching and also reassuring, enlightening.

“It’s been really helpful for me because I’ve always listened to spoken word poetry but was afraid to try it,” says Mikalyn Flowers, 17, a Dallas-based student at A+ Academy. “I love writing so much. It felt so natural discussing poems. It really helps me express myself a lot.”

Aubrey Smith, a 17-year-old student at Cedar Hill Collegiate High School who lives in Oak Cliff, concurs. “I really like spoken word,” she says. “I watched it but never thought I was good at it. The feeling of reading my stuff out loud…I like it better when I read it out loud. I find that I can really express myself out loud. I used to be really critical of my work but this helps me see and hear my strengths.”

Poetry, like paper airplanes, can fly as high as the imagination. The centrifugal force that propels poetry feeds on much more than just pen, paper and words. Zihuatanejo has the bigger picture in mind.

“Yes, at DYP we are trying to make them better poets,” he says, “but in turn we are trying to make them better thinkers, readers, and speakers, all skills that go into making our students at Dallas Youth Poets not only better writers, but also better students and people.”

We thank our Creative Solutions donors for their generous support – Texas Bar Foundation; DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; David Nathan Meyerson Foundation; Dallas County Juvenile Department; Grant Thornton, LLP; Katherine Carmody Trust, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee; M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; Fossil Group Employee Engagement Fund; The Junior League of Dallas; Elizabeth Toon Charities; Turning Point Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; and Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond. We also thank TACA for their generous support of DaVerse Lounge.

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