Arts, Inclusion, Enrichment: Working with Refugee Youth in Baltimore

August 7, 2019

“This course was much more than a class; it was an enlightening and transformative experience I will forever value as a part of my journey as an artist and an educator…it is a holistic, life-altering experience that changes the way you see yourself, members of the community and each person’s ability to impact the world. […] I presumed that I understood the work we were undertaking, I was still met with unexpected, joy-filled surprises along the way.” – MAIAI Graduate and High School Dance Teacher

“All we do with the other art programs is show the world how smart we are in art. That’s all basically. But in the YAAAS program they want people to communicate with them. To know about you, to care about you, to give you advice, to help you out if there is a problem – and it’s all together with art. Everything is mixed with art. I love it. – Eritrean HS student, age 18, in the U.S. almost 3 years

Arts, Inclusion, Enrichment: Working with Refugee Youth in Baltimore By Kate A. Collins

The entire YAAAS group, both high school and graduate students, in front of our culminating art work which we call our Conversation Pieces. This work was exhibited in the Center for the Arts at Towson University. Photo by Arthur Smith, 2018.

Youth Artists and Allies taking Action in Society (YAAAS!) is a graduate service-learning course and project at Towson University featuring a partnership with the Refugee Youth Project (RYP) – a program of Baltimore City Community College, and a Baltimore City high school in southeast Baltimore, MD, with a significant immigrant and refugee population. Established in 2003, RYP relies on university volunteers to offer after-school tutoring and enrichment programming for refugee youth at several Baltimore City schools. Towson became one of those dedicated partners through the YAAAS project in Fall 2017. Baltimore has a proud history of providing safe haven for refugees since the early 20th Century. The countries from which student refugees arrive in Baltimore vary from year to year, but since the YAAAS program began in 2017, we have been working primarily with young people from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, DR Congo, Uganda, and more. Our student partners often speak two or three languages with English being the newest. Educational backgrounds vary highly where some students have attended school all along, some have had highly interrupted schooling, and others have never attended school until arriving in the U.S.

YAAAS has quickly become a signature course of the M.A. program in Interdisciplinary Arts Infusion (MAIAI – pronounced like Maya) at Towson University. MAIAI is a one-of-a-kind graduate program that has just completed its fourth year. The program engages educators and other professionals working at the intersection of schools, communities, youth and the arts – who want to expand their knowledge and skills with arts infusion. We are called upon to develop innovative curriculum that suits the needs of these professionals. Through the YAAAS partnership, Towson is positioned to make a strong contribution to educational research. At the same time, we offer an opportunity for the educators in our M.A. program to become part of a process of discovery where upon we break new ground in immigrant and refugee youth engagement through the arts. Simultaneously, we support teachers as allies and advocates and improve individual agency and collective efficacy of our youth partners.

YAAAS employs a model where grad students (mostly working teachers) and refugee students work side by side as collaborators in an eight-week evening arts enrichment program. We focus on collaborative art-making strategies that prioritize dialogue to meaningfully support and engage refugee youth with limited English. Our interdisciplinary arts curriculum is linguistically responsive, culturally sustaining, asset-driven, and trauma-informed. Central to our framework is the creation of a non-hierarchical learning space that allows for lots of one-one-one and small group work to support authentic relationships and deep learning for both graduate and high school student participants. For Fall 2019 we aim to continue advancing this model because we observe tremendous reciprocal learning among all participants. Through close collaboration, we enhance the self-expression and personal agency of socially isolated refugee youth, while at the same time radically enhancing graduate student global competency and arts integration skills. Public schools in our region are seeing rapid growth in the enrollment of English Language Learners so teachers are eager for support. Maryland has also long been a center for arts integration, so this effort is well-situated in a metropolitan area that values the arts as a vehicle for learning.

Thus far, success for YAAAS has been found in the positive feedback from both youth and grad students in evaluations and interviews, from ringing endorsements from RYP Coordinators who now point to YAAAS as an ideal partnership model, and from reliable youth attendance. Success has also been found in the creation of powerful visual artworks exhibited in the Towson University Center for the Arts, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and at Creative Alliance – a Baltimore arts venue that hosts an annual festival for World Refugee Day.

This is one of the Dear Partner artworks created by MAIAI graduate student and high school art teacher, LaVerne Miers-Bond. If you look closely you can see that she incorporated the Dear Partner letter she wrote earlier in the semester as both a personal reflection and thank you letter to our youth partners. The Dear Partner assignment is linked at the end of this post.

We are currently also negotiating a permanent exhibit of one of our visual art projects in Towson’s College of Education. Our most recent success involves YAAAS being identified as a Priority Investment at Towson University and awarded funds through the Presidential Priority BTU (Baltimore Towson University – Partnerships for Greater Baltimore), in order to continue growing YAAAS over the next three years.  

Our graduate students are already actively teaching in schools, so skills and knowledge gained through this course and project immediately filter into the counties and schools where our teachers work. We employed the Global Engagement Survey with our enrolled graduate students and data analysis is underway. In the meantime, course evaluations and final reflection papers indicate that graduate student participants deeply valued the hands-on experience and regarded their involvement with YAAAS as  “life-changing.” In addition to the quotations that led this post, here’s a sampling of what students have shared:

“I think that through working with these students I have naturally become more aware of the plight of the refugee and of the Muslim in America. I hear their stories and it makes me want to go home and research, it makes me want to be more involved. Since beginning our work together I have already started reaching out to my Muslim students. I have already started thinking about ways that I can make things more equitable for my students. I am actually now in the process of creating a prayer room for my Muslim students during Ramadan.” – Current MAIAI Grad Student and High School Spanish Teacher

“YAAAS is an experience where you are placed in a classroom and given a chance to be open and uninhibited with students. The almost one on one ratio of students to teachers allows you to focus on each student and really try to hear and see who they are in that space at that time. The class allows for the structure of learning to be redefined for both the students and the teachers, showing how play and creativity can create a strong fertile environment for active learning.” – Current MAIAI Grad Student and Baltimore City Teaching Artist

“When asked about YAAAS, I always begin by talking about the students because, in the end, that is what is important. I talk about the stories that they have shared, the journeys that they have taken, their resilience, joy, earnestness, and strength. I tell them that we play [theatre] games and through those games come to know each other. I talk about the importance of play and the strategic scaffolding of these arts infused experiences to build trust and community and the magic that happens when the student becomes the teacher. I share my sense of humility in the presence of young people who have experienced so much more than I can ever imagine.” – Current MAIAI student and High School Art Teacher

The quote below and the second quote at the top of this article both offer refugee students perspectives on the program:

“YAAAS gives a lot of opportunities to my life …YAAAS helped me improve my English a lot…It gave me a positive way to improve myself, learn how to talk to people and not be scared.” – Syrian HS student, age 19, in the U.S. 2.5 years

There is still a lot to learn through analysis of data and refinement of the curriculum with each iteration of the project. Still, the potential of YAAAS becomes clearer with each step forward. When we build up our most vulnerable populations, make sure they know they are valued, expand their relationships and network of support, build their confidence with English, create opportunities for self-expression and positive peer relationships as they work their way through trauma, help them navigate their way into college and careers, and help them find their place in American society, we play an important role in making sure young people who could too easily continue to be pushed to the margins – instead, thrive and become productive members of the Baltimore community. The close relationships they are able to build with adults teachers and peers through the YAAAS program at their high school comes at a crucial time in the development of these new Baltimore residents. Through our program, we also position these youth to be OUR teachers and expand our own cultural competencies as educators, which will further serve the Greater Baltimore schools and students where our teachers and teaching artists work.


More about YAAAS! appears below and an example reflective assignment is linked here.

Kate Collins is the founding Graduate Director for the M.A. program in Interdisciplinary Arts Infusion (MAIAI) at Towson University and the creator and director of the YAAAS project. Collins has her doctorate in Arts Administration, Education, and Policy from The Ohio State University and an MFA in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University. She is a community-engaged artist who has long been engaged in research and creative practice related to fostering engaged citizen artists, collaborative artmaking, dialogue, and intergroup relations. For more information contact kacollins@towson.edu 

Join Kate Collins and like-minded colleagues and action-oriented collaborators at the 6th GSL Summit, at Clemson University, November 3 – 5, 2019. Register now – spaces are filling!

 

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