Creative Solutions

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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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Texas Bar Foundation Grant to Fund Creative Solutions

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

We thank the generosity of the Texas Bar Foundation. Big Thought has received a $10,000 grant from the Austin-based Texas Bar Foundation to fund Creative Solutions, a 20-year program that utilizes professional teaching artist mentors and a research-based curriculum to enhance empathy, critical thinking, teamwork skills and grit in teen probates.

“We are so grateful to the Texas Bar Foundation for their generous gift to Creative Solutions,” says Lisa Schmidt, Creative Solutions Founder. “Creative Solutions has made a huge difference in the lives of so many young people. This gift insures that we continue to keep this program strong and viable.”

Creative Solutions is a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that benefits from the generous support of the DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; Grant Thornton, LLP; the M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; Neiman Marcus; Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond; the W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; and the Elizabeth Toon Charities.

The program has revealed the potential of more than 10,000 students in the last two decades. According to the Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) analysis over the past two summers: 41 percent of youth increased their social skills score by more than 5 percent; and 40 percent of youth decreased their problem behaviors score by more than 5 percent. Both figures are considered statistically significant.

The Texas Bar Foundation grant to fund Creative Solutions marks the beginning of a new relationship between the foundation and Big Thought.

Since its inception in 1965, the Texas Bar Foundation has awarded more than $16 million in grants to law-related programs. Supported by members of the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Bar Foundation is the nation’s largest charitable-funded bar foundation.

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Thanksgiving Lunch a Creative Solutions Reunion

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Reunions rejuvenate the soul. They provide instant past, present and future snapshots that inform, elate and gratify. Reunions are joyous journeys that help us reconnect with others and ourselves.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reunite, to embrace and share in the prosperity of those we haven’t seen in too long. That was the ambiance of the Creative Solutions Thanksgiving Lunch Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Big Thought’s Blue Room.

Creative Solutions is a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that benefits from the generous support of the DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; Grant Thornton, LLP; the M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; Neiman Marcus; Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond; the W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; the Texas Bar Foundation; and the Elizabeth Toon Charities.

A decade’s worth of Creative Solutions participants, about 35 guests in total, mingled and dined. On the menu: robust slices of turkey and ham, homemade green beans with potatoes, savory and crunchy Asian salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, white and wheat rolls. Oh and pies, lots and lots of pies! For dessert we had pumpkin and pecan pie, cookies, cheesecake, chocolate mousse with real whipped cream. Then pies boxed and ready for CS participants to take home, a table full of pumpkin, banana cream, pecan, apple and many more.

The guests spilled over into the adjacent Big Thought Café. Big Thought’s Allison Caldwell, Creative Solutions Director, and Lisa Schmidt, Creative Solutions Founder, could barely contain their joy watching Frankie with his sister and two cousins, Faith with her mom and two kids, Bliss, Rosalyn, Dejahn, Dredarrius, Steven with his brother, Terrell with his grandparents, Amber and her guests, Jessica and her guests, and many others. Also in the house were teaching artist Ronnie and Holly. Ronnie teaches music, while Jessica teaches ceramics and textile weaving.

Three Creative Solutions participants merit special mention: Blanca, who came with her husband and two children (ages 3 and 1); Alex, who brought her adorable 4-month-old baby boy; and Jonathan, who went from CS participant to mentor and instructor.

Schmidt said she hadn’t seen Blanca in three years and was so happy that she’s doing well. Blanca, Schmidt said, is employed, raising her family in her own house and happily married. Alex, who hadn’t been around the CS group in a year, has a great support system, according to Schmidt. She wants to go to college and start writing again. Jonathan is also working now. In September, he announced to the Big Thought staff that he had snagged a great new job.

“It’s wonderful to see them,” says Schmidt. “When you do the work that I do you never know if the seeds that were planted have taken root. Seeing Blanca so well balanced, leading a balanced life…it was so good to see that. We keep sustaining this great feeling, passing it down from one generation to the next.”

Therein lies the essence of reunions. They inform, they elate, and they gratify. Reunions rejuvenate the soul.

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