• Bill Cleveland

23 Admonitions, Insights and Ideas from the Great Masters


William Cleveland

One of the common characteristics of community-based youth arts programs are the intense and intimate partnerships involved. The truth is, you can’t do this work without partnerships. But, unfortunately, we, as citizens living in the largest monument ever built to the primacy of the individual, have been not particularly well prepared for the multiple relationships we must forge to do our work in communities. But partnerships among artists, and teachers and youth workers and parents are fundamental to this work. Partnerships among arts organizations, schools, police departments and youth service organizations are indispensable. Youth arts means: partners every where you look. But wait a minute---who’s missing?

That’s right. The prime constituency here, the young people, are often left out. When I was a teenager, I often felt like I was one of the silent partners. But, for me there was an antidote to being ignored. I was fortunate to have begun playing music when I was a young guy. This was a time when there were all these of crummy teen centers and clubs and even bars where you could get up on stage and be bad long enough to get better. These were places where we were acknowledged for our chutzpah and sometimes even paid. Looking back, I consider that collection of rat holes where people actually applauded us for our failures to have been an incredible gift.

And thankfully, the pathways of my continuing work as a musician, a writer, arts educator and arts bureaucrat have also included a number of experimental laboratories that have been forgiving, of miscues and stumbles. I am grateful for the opportunities to take risks because of the inevitable lessons that have been attached. Now, many of these lessons has been delivered by the people I have had the privilege to serve‑‑ prisoners, people struggling with mental illness, people with disabilities, institutionalized seniors, and students of all ages. Some of the most enduring of these lessons have been delivered by young people.

And, you know, I have found that young people know a lot about community arts partnerships, largely because they are left out of them so often. In fact, everywhere I go, where there are young people, I ask them to tell me what they would like to share with folks who create youth arts programs about what it takes to create successful creative collaborations. I find their ideas and advice to be some of the most perceptive and useful I have encountered. So, here are 23 admonitions, insights and ideas about youth arts partnerships from the people who know best.

1. The first is about access. Young people in this country understand that we live in a culture that translates its priorities into dollars and cents. It is clear to the young people I have talked to that we are not interested in investing in their creative futures. For young people today there are very few places where creative exploration and experimentation can be safely practiced. They know art education is an endangered species. But they want this desperately. Not because it would be nice, as a recreational alternative, but because they know it is their job to learn by exploring and questioning the world they were born into.

We adults need this too! Not because it seems like the right pedagogical thing to do, but because, without this raw and exuberant feedback we have lost our only opportunity to learn from and collaborate with the next generation on our future.

2. Young citizens want to be respected for the varied and unique voices they bring to the conversations taking place in their communities. They are particularly concerned about the conversations that take place that effect their lives that do not involve them. They will be heard eventually.

3. The youth I have talked to do not want to be subjects of faddish experiments, cultural or otherwise foisted upon them by the adult world. They want to trust adults. And they want you to know, that they know that trust comes with continuity, predictability, regularity, and consistency of work together over time. By over time, they mean a long time. Years, not weeks.

4. Young people do not want to be forced to do things adults think are good for them that they would never do themselves. They know that shotgun weddings, arranged marriages and artificial insemination are not good partnership models.

5. Emerging young artists want an artistic workplace that provides both form and freedom. They are, at once, attracted to the improvisation and the discipline inherent to the creative process.

6. Our future creative leaders want us to be clear about what goes and doesn't go. As young artists and citizens they want to be informed of all the rules. Where is it safe? Where is there danger? And most of all who holds what power? They know that building trust between the more and less powerful is tough. They also know that those who wield power often suffer from “privilege blindness” and thus have a hard time responding to requests to share power.

7. The inventors of youth culture do not want to be romanticized. They want to be respected for their capacities and potentials. They want to be acknowledged and accepted for what they know and what they don't know. They also want relationships with adults that are driven by their talents and possibilities rather their potential to screw up.

8. Aspiring young artists want their artist/teacher/mentors to be honest and very clear about what they know and don't know. They can recognize and are insulted by fakery. They want the adults collaborating with them to have their stuff together.

9. When the adult world brings the power and force of the creative process into their lives young people do not want a one-night stand. They do not want to be turned on and left behind.

10. Young people want to remind you that they are not all the same. And that one young person does not speak for all youths. They know that there is strength in diversity and want adults to be honest about their problems with difference. They are too obvious to ignore. And ignoring them only gives them power.

11. Once a commitment has been made, young people want regularity, dependability, and commitment from the artists and others with whom they are collaborating.

12. As they get older and more invested in creative relationships our young collaborators want to be given opportunities to gain some degree of ownership of the process and outcome of the work.

13. Young people want to make and do more than they want to be told about, talk about, or analyze what is going on.

14. Young creators want to know how their art making can contribute to the needs of their peers and their communities.

15. Young learners want to be held to high standards. They know when they are being subjected to the tyranny of low expectations.

16. Young people want to know what you think about their work. They want you to be fair and honest.

17. Youth everywhere would like adults to respect their cultural practices without dominating, appropriating, or romanticizing them.

18. Young students want their artist/teacher/mentors to take care of themselves. They don't want burned out partners delivering half‑baked programs.

19. When the time is right young people want to celebrate.

20. They also want the adults in their lives to lighten up.

21. Every once in a while, young people sometimes want their mentors to listen and not offer advice.

22. Our young friends want to eat and dance and make music.

23. Young people want to love and be loved.

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