Getting Youth Involved with the Arts: From Expression to Prevention
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

From painting to poetry, the arts have numerous benefits for all youth, especially those at-risk. While most programs for youth seem to be disappearing everyday, one organization is trying to create a national movement to utilize the arts as an important part of every youth's life.

"You need to look at the continuum of art - as something you can enjoy and also with intrinsic values in that it adds to education in terms of cooperation, team skills and the importance of fostering appreciation for cultural and ethnic diversity," says Lois Saperstein, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for the ARTS. 

As a child, Saperstein used art as a means to communicate and express herself, a love she developed into a career as an artist and art therapist. By using art in a similar fashion with the youth she works with, she has seen the impact it can have in the life of a young person. Unfortunately, many schools are cutting their arts programs, a move Saperstein says is a result of misunderstanding the full power art can have.

"[Art's teaching ability] is not fully understood by people like parents and teachers, because a lot of people look at it as 'my child can't paint or play the piano,'" she says. "They don't see the underlying values of participating in the arts."

By founding the Center five years ago, Saperstein has been able to raise awareness around art's values and encourage those in schools and in the community to use art as a tool of expression for youth. Instead of an art teacher instructing a class on skill and history, the Center tries to get people to understand the numerous outlets art can provide for young people.

"Through the Center, we try to show how art brings people together and they can use it as a communication tool," she says. "We don't want [youth] to be Picasso, we want to teach them experiences and give them that experience to participate."

The Wide Reach of Art Programs

According to Saperstein, the Center aims to show that all arts are just as important as academics in school. With kids feeling so much stress to succeed academically, they need an outlet to express themselves, learn about themselves and develop character. 

"When youth utilize the arts for self-expression and communication, it comes from the individual - from deep down inside of them," she says. "We are not asking them to draw a tree or a specific thing, we are letting them express themselves and learn about themselves in their own language. [Art is] non-judgmental and non-competitive, so if you go about it the right way, you allow youth to show how they feel in their own voice and express their ideas. "

From a community standpoint, having arts programs available to youth not only provides a safe place to come together and share ideas, but also shows young people that they too are important members of their neighborhood.

"There is a connection that's made, which is vital for kids, and that can make a difference," says Saperstein. "There are a lot of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness [with youth], but the arts can show them that they do have a voice and that they can make a difference [in their community]." 

Coming Together To Raise Awareness

For at-risk youth especially, art can be a useful and healthy outlet for not only expressing themselves, but for learning as well. While many drop out of school because they cannot meet the academic requirements, the right art program can provide them with self-esteem and self-discipline. Saperstein adds that many of the lessons learned through art, such as critical thinking, can transfer to experiences in the workplace.

On October 18th and 19th, the Center and the Rutgers University School of Social Work are co-sponsoring "Breaking Down the Walls: Reaching Youth at High Risk Through the Arts," a conference to raise national awareness of the value of the arts. Targeted toward prevention specialists, social workers, teachers, community youth workers, counselors and artists, the goal of the conference is to open people's eye to art as a vehicle for prevention with at-risk youth.

"We want to raise the awareness of anyone interested in the value of art and how it intermingles with prevention and peace strategies, which are just as vital to kids as academic subjects," says Saperstein. "We can't ignore what is going on inside youth and just feed them information."

In fact, she adds, where most prevention programs take an "outside in" approach to learning - where a person stands before a group of youth and delivers facts and statistics - art has more of an "inside out" approach.

"Arts deal with the youth and individual from the inside, [allowing them to] get out their feelings and make vital connections with themselves through self-expression," she says. "[It looks at] how they feel, how they communicate that message and utilize that to help others also."

By working peer-to-peer, whether it is designing a poster or creating other prevention material, the fact that it comes from other youth often makes more of an impact than hearing it from an adult, says Saperstein. This powerful communication tool can help stimulate social change and help other youth see how they can accomplish their goals in life.

Creating a National Network

The conference will also mark the launch of the Arts and Prevention Institute, which will provide on-going training workshops and technical assistance to anyone wanting to incorporate the arts for prevention. Run by the Center, Saperstein says that with years of accumulating resources and having contact with programs across the country, the Institute will be a focal point to help any organization gather information and network with others.

Additionally, Saperstein hopes to add to the ARTS netWORK, a group of people across the country also interested in utilizing art with prevention and learning more about new practices. Through the Internet, interest in the conference has come from West Africa and Australia, proof to Saperstein that word is getting out about the use of art for peace and tolerance projects.

"When I started [the Center], I thought I was all alone in this, but now I know I am not," she says.


For more information on the Center for the ARTS, go to
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339