Friday, June 2nd, at Lancaster’s first Youth Arts & Innovation Conference unexpectedly turned out to be one of those precious life moments during which you find yourself standing on the brink of something big. An email plea from a friend to serve as chaperone to a few of Lincoln Middle School’s 6th and 7th graders attending the event sounded like a great excuse to get out of the office for a little while, and maybe a chance to check out some of Lancaster’s local artists—not to mention, free lunch. By the end of the day, it had become incredibly obvious that I had just been lucky enough to participate in and witness the beginning of something powerful for our community. I had lost count of how many times I got goosebumps. I don’t remember how many times I fake-sneezed to wipe the tears streaming down my face.
Put on by Program Associate and We Rock the Mic Facilitator, Ty Gant of The Mix at Arbor Place, in partnership with The Ware Center and Millersville University, The Youth Arts & Innovation Conference centered around students practicing positive expression through multiple forms of art, public speaking, and professional paths. It all sounded very “students will be able to” on paper, but experiencing the workshops, the movement, and the emotion of the day felt anything but standardized or prescribed.
The conference gave students the opportunity to participate in three different workshops led by Barry Kornhauser, a nationally recognized playwright and the Assistant Director of Campus & Community Engagement at Millersville University; Savannah Thorpe and Molly Carl of BrandYourself Lancaster; as well as Evita Colon and Solise White, Speak to my Soul Spoken Word Poet and Head Choreographer, respectively. Throughout each workshop, participants were asked to dig deep to find the issues they care most about in order to promote social justice through art in our community. Students were also given useful information surrounding online and professional reputations and how goals, interests, and accomplishments can help promote success outside of high school.
I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised with how ready students were to access the lessons and opportunities afforded by each session, and I was floored by the passion each individual brought to the groups. Every person who attended, even the chaperones, were asked to put themselves in vulnerable situations and did so readily, often with smiles and laughter—a welcome and noticeable difference from the usual end-of-the-school-year attitudes.
After an already busy morning and afternoon packed with work sessions and special guests, I was prepared for students to mentally check themselves out after lunchtime, remembering how I used to feel in middle and high school towards the end of the school year; however, students were quick to engage in a panel discussion kicked off by Brave New Schools, during which panel members were asked about the importance and attainability of personalized education. A question that many students could have shied away from because of its pedagogically specific language, the audience and young panel members were some of the most vocal when it came to discussing their personal education experiences and insights. Many of the adult panel members including teachers, college staff and professors, as well as the School District of Lancaster’s Assistant Superintendent seemed eager to listen to the feedback from the middle and high schoolers and thoughtfully responded to ways in which both students and educators can make education more meaningful.
The entire day culminated in the announcement of Lancaster’s next Youth Poet Laureate: Kiara Guzman of McCaskey High School, followed by an incredibly emotional We Rock the Mic Youth Poetry Grand Slam, during which three teams competed. Students from Phoenix Academy, The Mix at Arbor Place, and More Than Poetry performed impassioned spoken word pieces that brought the house down and touched on issues such as social justice, missing parents and broken households, transgender and LGBTQ rights, finding your calling and being true to yourself, among others. By the end of the night, you might have been able to have counted on one hand the number of people who didn’t cry after at least once during the evening.
I walked out of the Ware Center around 8 o’clock that evening feeling more hopeful about the future than I had in a long time. The collaboration, creativity, and passion exhibited by the youth of our city left me believing in the power of the next generation to confront obstacles head-on, to thoughtfully question the status-quo, and to leave the world a better place for those to come. It reminded me that, more often than not, the most important voices are among the youngest, and we have so many opportunities to learn from them, if we listen. Lancaster—listen up. As Mr. Ty stated at the end of the night, “this is only the beginning.”