In its fifth year, Palo Alto nonprofit Youth Speaks Out is again giving local teens a place to process, express, explore and challenge themselves both artistically and personally.
This year of Youth Speaks Out holds particular importance. The organization first formed in 2010 after several Palo Alto students died by suicide and in response to a request "for committed adults to work with youth to make a safe, recurring, artistic venue for them to create, display and share their artwork, so that the community can witness directly the important aspects of their inner lives," a Youth Speaks Out press release states.
Much of the art created this year was done so in the wake of another teen suicide cluster in 2014 and 2015. More than 200 pieces of visual artwork paintings, graphic art, photographs as well as writing, performance art, ceramics and more will be on display starting this Friday, March 18, at the Palo Alto Art Center, with a grand opening scheduled for 5-7 p.m.
Fittingly, the theme for this year's program is "Give Voice 2016." As in past years, high school students were asked to create art in response to the question, "What's it like to be me?"
One Palo Alto High School student overlaid newspaper text over an image of his face, solemn and staring straight into the viewer's eyes. Called "Headline," the image depicts how facial expressions are like newspaper headlines, the student wrote in a description of the piece.
"We immediately know the surface facts, but until we dig deeper we will never understand what really happened. Many people choose to mask their private life from the outside world by making them look like someone they are not," he wrote.
A Paly photography student took a black and white photograph of herself and superseded images of her two brothers, looming large in the background for her piece, "Part of Three."
A Gunn High School student painted "Let Them Fly," a serene image of a girl standing on a grassy hill next to two cherry-blossom trees, balloons flying into the sky above her.
"It's difficult to let things go, but it's even harder to keep them inside," the student wrote in a description of the painting. "Do not fear that the past may come back, know that in order for you to move on, you must let them fly."
YSO Executive Director Caroyln Digovich, who co-founded the nonprofit with Gunn arts teacher Deanna Messinger, said this year in particular focused on helping students work through his or her "internal reality." The result, she said, leaves "the student with a phenomenal resource, which is to have a sense of who you are and what your strength is and your language and the courage to actually speak that."
Youth Speaks Out has steadily grown each year of its existence, from 84 participating students and one Gunn teacher in 2011 to more than 800 students and 12 teachers engaged this year. Youth Speaks Out also expanded beyond just arts classrooms at Paly and Gunn into journalism, theater, Paly's Social Justice Pathway and Black Student Union. The organization also put together schoolwide poetry slams at both Paly and Gunn this year.
One of the program's most prolific classes, Digovich said, is a class of Paly students on Individualized Education Program (IEPs), or students that have special needs. An IEP student will serve as the master of ceremonies for Friday's grand opening.
The nonprofit has also held workshops at local youth organizations, including Outlet, a Mountain View nonprofit that provides services and support for LGBTQQ youth in the area. The partnership with Outlet was new this year, and the goal was to bring in more LGBTQQ students, who Digovich said historically have been "the most reluctant to come forward and be involved."
"We want to make sure that all students are part of the fabric of this program, that we hear the students across demographics, (that) we hear their voices because if we just hear a slice of the students that we're focused on, then we don't get the whole picture." she added.
YSO also partnered for the first time this year with New Voices for Youth, a nonprofit that teaches local high school students how to create documentaries and tell their stories, to capture the Paly and Gunn poetry slams, conduct interviews and also record the grand opening to document the program this year.
YSO students and teachers will be leading city and school district officials as well as members of youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net on docent-led tours of the exhibit to provide "a bit more intimacy with the process," Digovich said. They're considering doing a docent-led tour for the public, too.
This year's program is also dedicated to a Gunn senior who gave a powerful spoken-word performance last year on surviving leukemia, called "Sanity." She is now in the hospital, Digovich said. Students who told Digovich that her performance was one of the most impactful last year decided to dedicate the exhibit to her.
Youth Speaks Out is sponsored by the Palo Alto Unified School District, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, Partners in Education (PiE), the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Acknowledge Alliance, the Palo Alto Art Center, Midtown Realty and a host of local businesses.
This year's exhibit will be on display at the Palo Alto Art Center, at 1313 Newell Road, through April 12. Speakers at the grand opening will include a YSO student and teacher, Palo Alto school district Board of Education member Heidi Emberling, Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon.
For more information, go to Facebook.com/youthspeaksout or call 650-387-5709.