ARTicipating the school year at EPIC Academy

By Anna Joranger

In designing an artist residency for the 2012 Urban Gateways summer program at EPIC Academy, teaching artist Adil Mansoor opted for something fresh and challenging. He decided to help EPIC teenagers address any and all fears and concerns particular to their age group, and to do it through nearly every artistic discipline under the sky.

“The art scene is moving towards thinking about socially engaged arts as a very legitimate practice- this is what is happening in the moment,” Adil said. And this is why he decided that EPIC’s summer “ARTicipants” would focus on conversations that spring from pieces of art and move on to encompass larger social issues facing modern teens.

Urban Gateways began partnering with EPIC Academy on Chicago’s south side in fall 2011 to create a 21st Century Community Learning Center, and during the 2011-2012 school year Urban Gateways artists offered a variety of after-school arts programming at EPIC – media arts, spoken word, percussion, and more. After-school programs are resuming for the 2012-2013 school year, but in the interim, UG artists led summer opportunities for interested students. Adil facilitated his “ARTicipate” group for 11 lucky EPIC upperclassmen who wanted to talk about art, high school issues, and everything in between.

“It was really about creating a safe space for critical conversations,” Adil said. The group discussed everything from teen violence and suicide to bullying and how to improve the school culture, and they did it all by examining art pieces. Adil integrated songs, flash mobs, plays, theater games, and much more.

Simultaneously, incoming EPIC freshmen were participating in summer arts residencies with UG teaching artists in audio recording, mosaic art, and dance. A highlight for Adil’s ARTicipants as well as for the younger students was the opportunity for mentorship. At the end of the summer, the ARTicipants hosted a three-hour “art happening” for the freshmen, which included theater games, a poetry reading, and lunch with randomly-chosen groups who discussed lunch table racial segregation and how to avoid it while chowing down on a “fusion” lunch menu that combined Latin American staples with foods the African American students are more accustomed to. To wrap up the art happening, ARTicipants turned a more tranquil theater game into a flash mob/dance party.

The freshmen and ARTicipants had crossed paths casually throughout the summer, but the art happening presented a new opportunity to build relationships that will carry into the school year. “When else can a freshman talk about how scared they are of their first year of high school, and feel supported?” Adil pointed out.

The ARTicipants even compiled this video, offering advice for EPIC’s incoming freshmen and their parents.

ARTicipants also hoped to increase student participation in Urban Gateways arts programs throughout the year by engaging the freshmen from the very beginning.

For Adil and his students, the summer was both wonderful and intense. At the beginning of the program, Adil asked ARTicipants to suggest discussion topics, and he was surprised when forceful subjects like teen suicide came up immediately. To address this particular theme in an arts-centered way rather than delving into personal stories, the ARTicipants read and analyzed a 10-page play about teen suicide. A discussion about color and character in this theater piece ultimately turned into one of the class’s deepest conversations. It was this kind of trust and group closeness, Adil feels, that created a safe space for the ARTicipants and ultimately for the freshmen.

Kelly Christiel, the Resource Coordinator for EPIC’s Urban Gateways programming, strongly feels that school year and summertime arts programs have strongly impacted students at EPIC. “I have definitely seen an impact on career aspirations,” she said. “Students come up to me regularly in awe of a particular trip they went on or a project they are working on and tell me how they’d like to look into the arts as a career. I can tell that they believe the sky is the limit when it comes to college and career options.”

Although the ARTicipate program lasts only for the summer, Adil feels that the skills his students developed and the conversations they undertook will affect their entire high school careers, and their lives beyond high school. “These students are leaders,” he said. “They were a clear and mighty team by the end of our summer.”

Check in next week for photos!