Raising Their Voices: Through Theater and Community Outreach, Teens Teach Peers and Parents about Critical Issues Facing Youth Today

By Wilensky, Joe | Human Ecology, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Raising Their Voices: Through Theater and Community Outreach, Teens Teach Peers and Parents about Critical Issues Facing Youth Today


Wilensky, Joe, Human Ecology


Generations ago, giving young people the tools to strengthen their communities would likely consist of putting a hammer or toolbox in their hands and leading them over to the nearest barn raising or church groundbreaking. But today, teaching young people to help build their community's assets can also draw on less physical, but no less important, tools.

The Youth Voices project in New York State is part of the federal Children, Youth, and Family at Risk program (CYFAR), a national initiative that seeks to build resources for families and children in high-need communities.

CYFAR programs, created through the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and states' Cooperative Extension systems, have been around for nearly a decade. Today, each state has a CYFAR project. These projects vary in focus, size, and scope based on each state's needs and capacity.

Steve Goggin, a senior extension associate with the Department of Human Development, is the project director of the Youth Voices project in New York. He says that research has shown that of the 28 million youth between the ages of 11 and 17, "one out of four have significantly high numbers of risk factors in their lives--poverty, family structure, the whole laundry list of factors that predict more difficulties in the teenage and young adult years."

The CYFAR projects are created in five-year cycles, although states have to apply for and renew their funding each year. The system "allows local sites to be creative with regard to the nature of the program and the structure of the program," Goggin says.

The current New York State CYFAR project, the Youth Voices project, involves two counties and is entering into its second year. The county-level project directors are Cornell Cooperative Extension educators in Jefferson and Erie Counties, Carol West and Barbara Baker, respectively.

In Jefferson County, a rural area of northern New York, the CYFAR project takes the form of a Youth Voices theater group. "The group is composed of teenagers who have gotten some training in drama and have written their own scripts," says June Mead, a senior extension associate with the Department of Human Development and co-director and evaluator for the Youth Voices program in New York.

The scripts address important issues facing young people that were identified through a community-wide survey. Actors perform original skits at various community venues on topics like pregnancy prevention, alcohol and substance abuse, violence, and more. The performances are interactive-- the audience participates in the problem-solving dramas--and live feedback can even change the direction or topics of the staged situations.

The Youth Voices actors perform "with the recognition that teenagers come in all shapes and sizes and that all actions have consequences," Mead says. "These performances are getting people in the community to talk about the issues facing young people, increasing communication between parents and young people, and, hopefully, motivating the community to address some of these issues."

The theater group's handouts include slogans like "Education through drama," "We have issues," and "Today's choices are tomorrow's reality." Their mission statement is to "present a realistic portrayal of teen issues to our peers and to our community in order to promote healthy and informed decision making."

The eight Youth Voices actors "have a great sense of ownership of the group," says Angela Newman, the program leader for the Jefferson County Youth Voices project. "They write their own scripts, and they direct and facilitate the performances. They'll even be running their own rehearsals this winter. I think they've gotten a great sense of self-efficacy from the project. I think it's also important for them to have a place where they can feel comfortable talking about risk issues. …

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