Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aerial Tactic + GSM Creative = Success

Teen Leaders in the Arts is an exciting new program at GAAH’s Cook Arts Center. Inspired by the youth driven spaces model of programming practiced by The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, the Teen Leaders program engages neighborhood teens in programs that celebrate and encourage autonomy and decision-making about their activities.

The program was launched last summer when a committee of teens, under the guidance of program director Steffanie Rosalez, met to define four main areas on which the program would focus: creative expression, work experience, community service, and travel. One of the resultant creative projects was the production of a promotional video featuring GAAH’s award-winning breakdance crew, Aerial Tactic.

Aerial Tactic was formed in 2012 by three members of a Cook Arts Center breakdance class taught by Brian Urbane, head of the crew 61Syx Technique. Antonio, Ignacio, and Edgar were so taken with breakdancing that they began choreographing routines of their own. The boys soon decided to form their own crew. They chose a name, selected a logo, and recruited Carlos, Noe, and Danny to the group.

When the opportunity arose for a creative project through the Teen Leaders program, several members of Aerial Tactic decided on a promotional video. About this time GSM Creative directors Matthew Lohr and Steve Wygmans were looking for ways to expand their business. Steffanie facilitated a meeting between Aerial Tactic and GSM Creative to discuss the possibility of working together, and a creative project was born.

Last September Aerial Tactic spent an entire Saturday afternoon in the GSM Creative studio. After an hour of filming, the teens provided input and learned editing techniques. The group agrees that the biggest challenge was finding the right music for the project. Because each dancer has his own style, the team wanted to portray each person’s specific talent. They found inspiration in the idea of “glitching” between scenes to unify the piece.

The collaboration proved to be a unique, exciting, educational project for both the breakdancers and GSM Creative. The members of Aerial Tactic were inspired to improve their moves, and the video turned out to be far better than they could have imagined. One of the members of the crew summed it up this way: “GMS Creative took a cake and added frosting to it.”

Antonio, Ignacio, Edgar, Carlos, Noe, and Danny invite you to view their video:

The final product

Aerial Tactic + GSM Studios

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Teen Leaders Partner with GR Forward

On December 16, GAAH’s Teen Leaders in the Arts held a successful meeting in collaboration with GR Forward to engage neighborhood residents in developing a vision for Downtown and the Grand River.

Despite their previous efforts to involve the Grandville Avenue neighborhood (also known as the Roosevelt Park neighborhood) in the process, Jay Steffen, Assistant Planning Director at the City of Grand Rapids, said the turnout for the first meeting on December 2 was not what they had hoped. Our Teen Leaders saw this as an opportunity to inspire their peers, family and friends to be a part of the process.

Cook Arts Center Program Director Steffanie Rosalez, the Teen Leaders, and professionals from GR Forward collaborated to create an exciting buzz around the meeting and provide information-packed workshops and activities for residents of various ages from a variety of backgrounds. As a result, more than 120 people, including Cook Library Scholars, Achievers, students from Schools of Hope and their parents, filled the Cook Library Center that Tuesday. Library Director Sue Garza and her staff juggled people in groups throughout the packed facility, and consensus is that the event was a resounding success.

The main activity led by the teens was an invitation-making session. Children were asked to create informational flyers for their families written in both English and Spanish. To accomplish this, teens had to not only understand the purpose, scope and meaning behind the work of GR Forward, but also communicate that message to the children in order to engage them. They distributed the colorful invitations to their families in hopes that they would encourage an equal amount of participation at the next meeting on January 8. What’s more, the teens were invited to the city planning office to help shape the future conversation. This motivated them to spend many hours taking photographs, working on scripts for a WOODTV 8 story in which they were featured, writing an article for The Rapidian, and creating flyers. In this partnership, they will continue to be an integral part of the work done in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood.

During the same time as the youth workshops, an information session with the adults was led by multiple leaders from GR Forward. The meeting began with a short breakdance performance by three teens from Aerial Tactic, Antonio, Carlos, and Danny. The main material, translated by staff members Javier and Monica, touched on concepts such as attracting business, drawing talent, maximizing the asset of the Grand River, and creating jobs. The solution presented, to remove the dams to restore the river, was explained as a way to build recreational activities, improve the habitat, promote better water quality, enhance aesthetics, create economic opportunities, enrich underserved communities, and instill stewardship of the natural habitat within the citizens.

The presenter then showed a concept plan and asked for suggestions about how to connect the river with trails, create walkable streets, fix parking issues, and make the city a more livable, walkable place for all residents. Attendees were encouraged to remain involved in the conversation for the next seven months by attending public meetings, participating in surveys, and voicing their opinions. After the formal presentation, the families participated in visual activities gathering this feedback. Participants were eager to share their ideas and visions for downtown Grand Rapids.

As a result of this overwhelmingly positive experience with GR Forward, it is GAAH’s hope that the families in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood will continue to dialog about building a vision for the future of the city together. It is only with the participation of people from all parts of the city that groups like GR Forward can be sure to shape a more interconnected, inclusive, functional place for all residents to enjoy.

Cook Library students work on creating invitations to their families for the GR Forward meeting taking place on January 8
Teen Leaders Donny and Noemi help write the content of the invitations
GR Forward offers visual, interactive ways for the public to provide their feedback about the development of the city
City Planner Jay Steffen talks with a neighborhood resident

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Critical Thinking at the Cook Library Center

Through a variety of tried and true methods such as market research and psychographics, media outlets deliberately target their advertising to certain audiences. Although most adults are able to consume media with this in mind, it is typically a far different story for youth. In fact, child psychologist James McNeal has established that children are by far the most impressionable marketable age due to their inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

That is why one Thursday a month GAAH welcomes Jeff Smith, founder of Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), to speak to teens in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood about the important distinction between reality and what is portrayed in the wide array of media that is consumed on a daily basis.

Covering topics ranging from racism to brand loyalty to beauty standards, these workshops challenge the viewpoints of the teens who choose to attend. The 90-minute sessions are packed with information and live-viewing sessions of product placement, advertisement critiques, and more. And although the concepts are new to the students, this is an exciting topic to them and they have been catching on quickly, learning how to consume media with a more critical eye.

During one workshop, after discussing synergistic product placement within Universal Studios’ ET, the class proceeded to view similar instances in The Grinch, Men in Black, Transformers, and the Hunger Games. They examined placements from products such as Phillip Morris, Hostess, Chevy, Target, Budweiser, Beats by Dre, and more. There were discussions of physical placement of the ads on billboards and blimps, on sports fields, at certain heights in grocery stores, on buildings, and even on gas pumps. Several students even came up with examples of their own.  

At the December workshop Jeff recorded some of the teens summarizing what they had learned so far. He says that next semester they will be focusing on creating their own media rather than analyzing the media that already exists. All of the students in attendance said they are planning to return.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mimi, Volunteer at the Cook Library Center, Finds Refuge There

It’s not every day that you meet a college student quite like Mimi (aka Michelle). According to her mother, Mimi is a “book eater.” Although Mimi was a very petite child who had to ride in the baby carriage until she was almost two years old, she began talking before anyone else her age. Her mother called her a “bright child” and said that she was forming full sentences early in her development. At a young age, Mimi’s mother would have to take books away to get her to focus on other things. Even then “She would read the cereal box, the tags on the back of the sofa, and other things in the house. That's just her!" her mother explained, fondly laughing. Nowadays, even after spending a long day on homework, Mimi goes to take a break only to find herself diving into yet another book. Mimi insists that it’s “recreational reading.” Her favorite books are The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, all written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In fact, when she first received the trilogy, she read it in less than 48 hours. 

Although she was born in Evergreen, Illinois, Mimi has lived all over the United States due to her mother’s occupation in campground management. In fact, they have seen every state in the United States twice and visited both oceans within the course of a year. Growing up, Mimi attended various schools and also attempted homeschooling throughout her K-12 education. “A lot of kids didn't like me in high school,” Mimi said. She feels that her good grades were to blame. She and her best friend Ruth, who suffers from a terminal illness, “broke the curve on every single test, making it difficult for the rest of the class to do well.”

Following the trend of her earlier education, Mimi was a student at several higher education institutions including Aquinas College and Northwest Michigan College. Mimi now finds herself studying at Grand Valley State University. This self-proclaimed “nerd” is majoring in English Language and Literature and minoring in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on Japan. She would eventually like to translate books and websites from Japanese to English and vice versa but plans to get her career started as an assistant English teacher in Japan. In fact, while studying there she interned at Rice Ball Daycare where she spent two days a week reading, talking, and playing with Japanese elementary kids. This experience created a path toward exceptional volunteerism at the Cook Library Center, where Mimi brings the same joy and wisdom to the young students in the Grandville Avenue neighborhood.

Mimi got into habit of volunteering very early, starting at a local library in Manelona, Michigan, in 7th grade. She later became involved with the National Honor Society in high school, which included volunteer hours as the service component of the program. At Aquinas College she undertook another project in order to continue receiving the Monsignor Bukowski scholarship. She traveled to Lasana, Mississippi, where she relieved people from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2008. “I helped people who got ignored,” she said, “There was one elderly couple whose shed fell off its foundation, and no one helped them to put it back up. So we pushed the shed back up and set things right.” Mimi later received a certificate for her community service.

Although her current educational experience at GVSU is excellent, Mimi faces a few barriers. Mimi’s mother, who suffers from an inoperable brain stem malformation, requires countless visits to the hospital. Because Mimi’s biological father passed away from diabetes when she was young, she finds her mother frequently under her care. In addition to this difficulty at home, Mimi also began to struggle with interpersonal issues with her roommates. As a result, Mimi has decided to find other ways to spend her time outside of class.

Fortunately she found the Cook Library Center, where her opportunity to volunteer with the children provides a healthy escape. ”The Library Center has reminded me how much I love going out and spending time with people,” she explained, smiling. "It's nice to stop hurting for a moment and enjoy life with the kids. It helps me let everything go for a while … knowing that I’m making life better for them.” She said, “Coming from an all-white neighborhood with all-white kids, there was no program like this where I could be with other people like me.” Excluded from social life in most of the places where she lived, Mimi says that she believes that the Cook Library Center gives the kids an opportunity to make friends with one other. “They are not alone here,” she said. “If I had something like this, I think about how much further I could have gone."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Meet Noemi G., Future Politician

Noemi G. is a Grandville Avenue teenager with a bright and promising future. This 16-year-old high school junior loves politics and photography and dreams of being governor one day. She participates in Calling All Colors, GAAH’s Teen Leaders in the Arts program, and was even interviewed for The Rapidian’s Elevating Voices project. When reflecting upon her passion for politics, she said that she found it “interesting how one single opinion can change a law or create something.” She said that when it comes to making changes, she would start with the education system in Grand Rapids because we could do a lot better. “No one is stepping up to that,” she said.

Noemi thinks the Cook Arts Center provides students with a safe space where ”they can be whatever they want to be without having to fit into the boxes that we call the education system.” Her recognition of the Cook Arts Center and the Cook Library Center’s work to create a place for Grandville Avenue youth is fitting in light of the recent development in the organization’s Teen Leaders in the Arts program.

After years of developing creative, safe, enriching programs for youth in Grandville Avenue neighborhood, the staff and leadership team at GAAH began to notice a lack of retention after a certain age. This issue of keeping teenagers interested was addressed by research conducted by Program Director Steffanie Rosalez. Steffanie visited The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, a pioneer in innovative youth programming, where she learned that the teen retention rates increase significantly if they are part of the decision-making process. She discovered that the key to retaining youth beyond elementary school is to simply ask them what they want to do and then make it possible for them do it.

The idea of autonomy became a crucial principle behind the development of this program. The program the teens helped to create included choosing an artistic discipline in which to receive private instruction, working at GAAH’s facilities to gain valuable work experience and earn real paychecks, creating and presenting materials about key neighborhood issues, planning and participating in engaging field trips to cultural institutions, and more.

Noemi’s particular choice for the arts component of the program was, of course, photography. After taking an entire summer of private lessons from a professional photographer from Bultman Studios, she is eager to utilize these skills to do a campaign of images to help promote important meetings with GR Forward in the neighborhood.

(More Story Matters pieces featuring neighborhood youth and their families can be found on The Rapidian’s website or on GAAH’s YouTube.)