Carolyn Digovich, founder of Youth Speaks Out, sits in front of photographs and paintings produced by students in the art-focused program that provides students space to express themselves. Photo by Veronica Weber.Posted January 5, 2018
Giving youth a voice
Nonprofit encourages students to express their inner lives, in good company
by Fiona Kelliher
In slam poetry, the hands speak as much as the mouth. As Crystal Trevillion stood in front of a crowd of students and families in Palo Alto Art Center, her hands moved between her head and stomach, at one point beating the air in a curled fist. Trevillion had just returned to Gunn High School after months of leukemia treatment, and her poem painted pictures of what it felt like to be bald, surrounded by machines and desperate to breathe outside a hospital room.
Audience members cried. Random strangers came up to hug her. For the first time, Trevillion said, people began sharing their own family's cancer stories with her.
"What you write — other people relate to," she said. "It's also good for me because I'm like, 'Oh, I'm not alone.'"
Trevillion performed her slam poem at a 2015 grand gallery opening for Youth Speaks Out (YSO), a program that has operated at Gunn and Palo Alto High School since 2011. Originally born as a response to the local teen suicide clusters, YSO offers avenues for students to express their inner lives and build communities through art.
The nonprofit works with teachers to create a safe and inclusive environment, build curricula for specific projects and host artists within semester-long classes. Participating "YSO classes" — which remain within the PAUSD system while interfacing with the organization — have included photography, painting, ceramics, journalism and creative writing, among others. YSO also collaborates with after-school clubs such as the Black Scholars Union and Gunn Poetry Slam Club, and all programming aims to foster real vulnerability, Executive Director Carolyn Digovich said.
In the past, this has meant supporting students as they've voiced their stress and the pain caused by turmoil in the community. While these themes are still important, Digovich said that YSO is making a concerted effort to include people who aren't always heard from, in particular students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.
And students like Trevillion, whose experiences may be unique in myriad ways.
"We really don't hear the voice of our student body if we don't have all the voices involved and engaged," Digovich said. "Those voices have been critical in helping us understand what students' lives are about."
YSO was one of just two organizations to receive $20,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this year. The backing has supported programming that aims, in part, to deepen YSO's roots in minority communities and continue partnerships from past years. Marshall Jones, a slam poet from Los Angeles who collaborated with Trevillion's class, will return this year to facilitate workshops; in the spring, a local organization called Outlet that supports LGBTQ youth will also engage students. This will mark YSO's third year collaborating with the mental health group Youth Minds Advocacy, which has previously hosted student art showcases in San Francisco.
Student groups representing different communities have taken an active role in shaping the program. One developing project idea is the "Soul Collage" that the Black Scholars Union at Paly will create with the help of a visiting artist this year. Within the school's social-justice-pathway courses, students will produce photo essays, digital art and other materials to form a larger "quilt" of reflections — and ultimately portray both the individual and the collective experience.
Alvaro Panitz, a 2015 Gunn graduate, said that exposure to other students' difficulties and dreams made him feel more comfortable discussing his own. Panitz moved to California from Peru in high school, leaving behind both his parents. His grandfather, who had primarily raised him, died about a year before he arrived at Gunn.
Back home, Panitz had written poems in his native Spanish about anything that struck his fancy — love, friendship, stories from friends, heartbreak. But while involved in YSO, he found himself writing about his grandfather and remembering moments they had shared years earlier.
"He was basically my father," Panitz said. "I miss him a lot, and so I decided to write about him because I feel like he's taught me so much."
According to Digovich, some art like Panitz's and Trevillion's creates a meaningful "counterpoint" to the themes of academic stress and grades that may otherwise dominate the classrooms. She recalled one student's photograph that showed his father's hands holding his own class picture from elementary school. X's were drawn over the faces of each child who had since died. More than half the faces were marked.
"The way it was discussed by the student was just ... 'This is a way of life,'" Digovich said. "'This is a reality that my family has dealt with, and people continue to deal with in our community.'"
As the program heads into its seventh year, its leaders are focused on long-term partnerships and resource management. While most YSO projects have been planned, implemented and finished within a school semester, the organization is now slowing down to solidify relationships and listen closely to students' needs, Digovich said. The largely volunteer-run nonprofit will also seek a donation or grant matching the Weekly's to hire staff.
Memories from YSO have stuck with Trevillion, who now attends De Anza College. Even now, she sometimes goes back to watch the video of her own performance. It rekindles how she felt in that moment — comfortable, open, surrounded by the community and by other students' art.
"I'm really glad I did it when I did," she said.