Monday, June 28, 2010

The Power of the Young: Youth Participation Fighting Environmental Oil Spill Woes

While BP is still currently attempting to make amends, others have taken the situation into their own hands. With each piece of tar that washes up onto Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and now Mississippi shores from the Gulf oil spill, comes concern and fear about how severe future ecosystem devastation will be, and the severity of economic downturn for the residents.

Every day, CNN reports on the oil spill in the Gulf, and offers five different ways to potentially end this environmental disaster. From using different high tech robots to stop the leak, to detonating a nuclear bomb, all sorts of suggestions have been offered in response to this crisis.

Sometimes, while watching the latest oil spill news, many of us at one time or another probably feel a sense of helplessness. Since many of us cannot simply take time off of work to go directly to the Gulf and volunteer our time, many may feel that they cannot do as much as they would like in this time of environmental distress.

What is often overlooked however, is that some of the most inspiring work to save the wildlife in the Gulf coast is being done by young people.

For example, fifth-grader Olivia Bouler has raised $60,000 through her sketches and paintings of different birds. She sends a picture to anyone who donates to: The Audubon Society, The Sierra Club, The Weeks Bay Foundation, The Mobile Bay Estuary Program or The National Wildlife Fund.

A Facebook group titled "Save the Gulf: Olivia's Bird Illustrations” has also been created, in order to inspire other young people, and show them that they can directly impact their neighborhood.

So what’s the lesson learned? Perhaps it’s that young people have a chance to truly create change in their communities. This illustrates how important civic engagement can be in these types of circumstances. More focus could being going into encouraging the younger generation and recognizing their efforts to bring change. I bet there’s a lot more Olivias out there, and by supporting youth participation in society, we can find those kids, and allow them to express themselves through their remarkable gifts.

Do you have any inspiring stories of young people responding in their own innovative ways to the Gulf oil spill? Please share them in the comments below!

image courtesy of

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Service and the Arts

Service and the Arts

In the US, arts and music programs in schools are often the first to be stripped when budgeting constraints demand cuts. And while it is true that this makes school less interesting for some and curtails growth and self expression, these are not the only tragedies. Art and music give us a mode of self-expression, the ability to pass on interpretations of life and history and to connect with others through service in the arts.

In Montville, Connecticut this correlation has taken on an impressive literal meaning for a class of eighth-grade students in Judy Abrams' Adventures in Music class at Leonard J. Tyl Middle School. These students spent their school year creating music of their own composition which was then compiled into two CDs which they donated to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. They also sold copies of the CDs, the proceeds of which will also be donated to the Center. The Medical Center has promised that the music will be played in all parts of the center, for all patients and doctors to hear.

The music created by this class, for children of all ages who are suffering from severe illness, represents some of the best of what the link between arts and service has to offer. The project requires musical knowledge and some access to instruments but in the end it is a product of connecting with others in meaningful ways. The CDs are a gift that requires attention, time and care which are transferred to the children who receive them.

The ArtistCorps in Tennessee works with the same idea – that art is a gift we can give to others and something that can make a difference in lives and communities. By combining art-based learning and service-based learning, ArtistCorps brings artistic projects to communities that serve as forces for integration and development.

Programs include Critical Exposure, which teaches photography to young people who then use their new skills to expose disparities in public schools; the class of fifth graders in Minneapolis, MN, who designed a comic book to fight prejudice against those with HIV/AIDS; or the drama production Sentences, written, directed by and acted by 17 year olds to express the stories of kids whose parents have been incarcerated. These kinds of programs teach young people a lesson with their new skills, allowing them to use their artistic expression to make a difference in their communities and to speak out on issues that they think are important.

In New Mexico, the VSA arts AmeriCorps program provides art lessons to children and adults with developmental disabilities. Their outreach includes helping those with disabilities by creating individualized learning plans, tailored to the person’s specific needs. They also provide art classes on Saturdays to children with autism, giving the kids a few hours of fun and expression, and giving the parents a short break.

These AmeriCorps volunteers use their own artistic talents to give opportunities to kids, whose disabilities make it more difficult for them to participate in these forms of self expression. For kids whose ability to relate to the world and to others is made difficult by their disability, the chance to connect on a creative level with themselves and with others is vital.

These programs are only a few examples of the ways that arts and service can interact. In all of them, both the volunteers and those they were helping are able to gain something from the experience, be it a skill or a method of activism or just the knowledge that there is someone out there who cares about what they have to say, in whatever means they wish to say it.

Do you have any stories of how you have seen art and service intersect? Please share them in the comments below!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Harry Potter Inspires Activism

The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is only sort of what it sounds like. What it sounds like is a fan club, one of many that have brought fans of the Harry Potter series together to discuss their favorite books. It is true that every member of this organization loves Harry Potter. But the HPA does not spend very much time discussing whether or not Sirius Black is actually dead or exactly how Harry ended up with the elder wand. The HPA is an activist organization that seeks to fight the dark arts in our world by promoting the messages found in the beloved series – equality, love and friendship.

With a young staff comprised of volunteers, the HPA has become a steadily more impressive member of the activist community. Founded in 2005, the HPA has grown steadily over the past few years to include over 60 chapters and 40 staff members, as well as hundreds of individual participants. Made up of high school and college students sprinkled with a few “real adults” here and there (one, of course, being the incredible head of the organization, Andrew Slack), these volunteers are responsible for raising $123,000 during the Helping Haiti Heal initiative – enough to send five charter planes full of much needed supplies to the country after the devastating earthquake. Throughout its tenure as an organization, the HPA has collected over 55,000 books which were donated to a village in Rwanda and the Mississippi Delta and has registered hundreds of voters through its Wizard Rock the Vote campaign during the 2008 elections.

The HPA also engages its volunteers in getting other young people to act on issues that matter to them through its Wizard Rock the Vote campaign. Wizard rock, also known as Harry Potter through music, is yet another example of the pervasiveness of the Harry Potter series. But more importantly, it is a representation of how much the fandom has become a community, and a community of activists at that. As wizard rock bands tour this summer, playing crowd favorites such as “Teenage Werewolf” and “Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock,” they’ll also be plugging the necessity of civic engagement, of participation in the election process, and they’ll be working with HPA volunteers from across the country. They’ll be encouraging the young people in their audiences to vote for what they believe in, to take action for causes that inspire them.

What the Harry Potter Alliance has done is take the fundamental rule from Harry Potter and turn it into action. No one is going to save the world for you. Harry Potter was an 11 year old, and then a 15 year old, and then a 17 year old saving the world again and again because he saw an enemy and a way to defeat him. He didn’t wait for someone to help him. His friends didn’t wait for someone else to step up. When Harry was on the run, when it seemed as though Voldemort had taken over, there were still those who fought him, who gave hope to the rebels and the fighters. They, too, didn’t wait for someone else to save them.

And thus the Harry Potter Alliance was born with the idea that everyone has the right to read books, to vote in elections, to be civically engaged in our communities, to live peacefully and happily without the threat of genocide or persecution, and with the idea that we are not hindered by our youth, but empowered by it. Because no one is going to save the world for us. The HPA reminds us that as long as we have the passion, we can find the means to help those around us, whatever our age.


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