What if knowing your history could give you a greater sense of confidence and inspire your direction in life?
“The project was made to be liberating, eye-opening, and informative…an effort to spark interest in individuals to discover their heritage and to learn more about the history of their origins.” — Thomas Evans
Following the success of They Still Live in 2017, artist Thomas Evans wanted to make an impact on his Denver community by inviting young adults to explore their heritage through art, poetry, and photography.
The evolution of Thomas’ exhibit turned into We Still Live, a community-based art project collaboration with Arts Street@YEA, professor and African art collector Paul Hamilton, and Denver gang prevention programs. The program offers a positive alternative for youth to counter negative influences by exploring self-identity and cultural heritage through art.
The project started in June 2017 with 49 young adults referred by Denver Public Schools and social service agencies. The youth selected reported having had contact with the juvenile justice system or self-identified higher risk factors for potential gang involvement.
By using AncestryDNA to help uncover their ethnicity and ancestral roots, students were given a deeper sense of belonging to their history and community.
“Initiating this project, we talked to youth about problems in their communities and they told us that gang involvement and violence was impacting their neighborhoods. One young man told us,
‘Kids first look to joining a gang because they feel they don’t have a place in this world – or a point for even being. They need opportunities to shine a light on a new way.'”
One of the art projects was for students to make a mask representing who they were as individuals.
Another exercise challenged students to write identity poems based on writing prompts from poet and guest instructor Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole.
Students then viewed Paul Hamilton’s collection of African artifacts and masks. Professor Paul Hamilton is an African Studies academic, previous Colorado State Representative, and renowned collector of fine African masks and African art. See a past interview we had with Mr. Hamilton here.
After completing the program, students were asked to share their feedback on how the program helped transform their thinking. The participant survey was created by the National Research Center for the Alliance for Creative Youth Development and it reported that:
- 78% said that…Feel that I can make more of a difference
- 78% said that…Learned I can do things I didn’t think I could do before
- 71% said that…Feel better about my future
- 80% said that…Feel I am better at handling whatever comes my way
- 82% said that…Care more about young people of other cultures, races, or ethnic groups
- 82% said that…Have more respect for young people of other cultures, races or ethnic groups
- 84% said that…Feel more comfortable with young people of other cultures, races, or ethnic groups
- 82% said that…Try harder not to judge people based on skin color
- 89% said that…I understand that someone who looks or sound different than me may not be that different after all
Having the opportunity to watch the personal growth of these students has been immensely inspiring. We each have so much to be proud of in our family histories and we can learn from the hardships our ancestors overcame. We encourage you to unlock your past to see how it might inspire your future.
Arts Street@YEA is a Denver-based organization dedicated to helping high-risk youth channel their artistic talents and natural curiosity into professional activities needed for the immediate future. To learn more about the We Still Live exhibit and the wonderful programs at Arts Street@YEA, visit their website.