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Description of Express Yourself Milwaukee

Express Yourself Milwaukee, Inc. (EYM) fulfills the vital need of providing artistic programs to an often overlooked and marginalized demographic in our community: central-city, low-income, and at-risk youth. The Express Yourself model elicits life-changing results in the lives of young people who have few outlets to cope with the stresses of poverty and violence they face on a daily basis. To accomplish this, Express Yourself integrates a committed team of professional artists into a program where students explore visual art, music, dance, and poetry/spoken word as a pathway toward healthier self-identities and making constructive choices for themselves.

At first glance, it might seem that Express Yourself is a social service or artist-in-residence organization but, in truth, it is neither. Express Yourself is an arts organization that offers a consistent, long-term creative outlet for urban youth in Milwaukee who have reached a critical crossroads in their lives and, with nowhere else to turn, have been folded into one social service program, or another. Often dismissed by the larger community, they are struggling with issues of parental abuse, drug addiction, incarceration, neglect, abandonment, and the daily fight to stay alive.

To reach this population of young people, Express Yourself forms ongoing, long-term relationships with the organizations serving this demographic. Our model is structured around weekly group sessions at each program site. The initial phase of the program involves relationship-building, with an introduction to visual arts, poetry, dance, music, and video. During this phase, from September through December, the EYM team of community artists and art therapists facilitate activities in their given disciplines, collaborating with the youth to create original art based on a theme that will have been identified early in the program year. This theme is reinforced through the artistic process, group discussion, and individual sharing. The students transition into production work in February when they join with the artists in integrating their art, music, dance and writing into a cohesive performance. Rehearsal, memorization and integrating the efforts of the students from the various program sites become the primary focus during this phase.

The resulting public performance takes place in May of each year and integrates the students from the various program sites that EYM serves. This performance is a core piece of the Express Yourself model, giving the youth an opportunity to demonstrate to the larger community the skills and concepts they have worked so diligently to learn.

The EYM model provides students an opportunity to learn skills to excel beyond the inherent obstacles and hopelessness in their lives. The anger and sadness they feel are harnessed and transformed through the healthy outlets provided by the EYM creative exercises. In this sense, the artistic process becomes a transformative agent for the youth involved in the program and is enhanced by the collaborative framework of the EYM model. The consistency of feeling supported by the expertise of performing and practicing artists each week is what precipitates a safe environment for the youth, giving them the courage to express themselves creatively, and to perform together.

Express Yourself Milwaukee has demonstrated steady growth since incorporating in 2003, becoming the first affiliate chapter of the award-winning Boston-based organization, Express Yourself, Inc. ( The successful model designed and implemented for more than 16 years in Boston, where celebrity guest artists such as Stomp and Blue Man Group have participated, became the cornerstone of the Milwaukee project. Our affiliation provides ongoing technical assistance and guidance for continued expansion.

Who Does Express Yourself Milwaukee Serve?

Express Yourself Milwaukee focuses on engaging youth who are underserved, culturally diverse and experiencing the negative impact of violence and poverty. Approximately 120 youth, ages 8–21, participate in the EYM program each year. Students falling within the upper age range of this demographic are working toward graduating from high school in alternative educational settings. Their progress has been delayed by learning difficulties, mental health issues, and incarceration or parenting responsibilities. The remaining students have been diagnosed with severe behavioral or emotional disabilities. The EYM model is an effective and economical means of providing positive alternatives for many of the pressures and challenges faced by these youth. Based on information gathered in previous years, the demographics of EYM participants consist of the following: 50% male/50% female; 85% African-American, 10% Caucasian, 5% Latino/Asian/Native American; 95% from low-income families, and 5% other; 100% of the youth served are involved in special education programming, 50% are currently in the foster care system. All of the participants face moderate to severe learning and or psychological difficulties, in large part due to the environmental factors influencing their lives. Participation in EYM allows the youth to be involved in the larger community without stigma.

Express Yourself seeks to affect change in the Milwaukee community. By offering a meaningful, long-term arts program that will help the participants to value themselves, the broader community also has the opportunity to view the talent and worth of these young people. For this reason, the public performance in May each year is paramount. The youth involved in our project are used to feeling isolated and segregated from their family members, peers, and community-at-large. For them, having the opportunity to put on a quality artistic performance for the public is a key part of building their self-esteem, and helping them to feel a sense of connectedness to one another, and to the larger community.

Collaborating Organizations

EYM collaborates with agencies in the community who are serving the at-risk youth falling into the demographics outlined above. Current collaborative agreements exist for four programs at Eighth Street School (Project STAY, Project STAY Senior Institute, School to Work, and New School for Community Service), St. Aemilian/Lakeside School and the Milwaukee County Detention Center, serving youth awaiting court disposition and adjudication. Through funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board, a second collaboration has been planned with Golda Meir School for the Gifted and Talented in 2006, which expands upon our 2005 project with the students from this school. Currently, for the youth involved in EYM, all programming is carried out within their own facilities, with meetings occurring once per week for a period of 1.5 hours to explore various art modalities.

In addition, the Mount Mary College Art Therapy Program provides service learning, field placement students, and an art therapist to supervise interns, visual arts and poetry. Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design provides one artistic team member, technical assistance, student interns, video equipment and service learning opportunities. MATA Community Media has aired the program on public access television and will continue to increase visibility through this venue.

Local Artists and Educators Involved in the Project

Express Yourself has obtained tremendous momentum through our success over the past few years and, as a consequence, we have reached a critical point of growth. Collaborative relationships have been solidified between Express Yourself and community agencies, and among the artists involved in our organization, creating a strong foundation from which to build.

Led by Executive/Artistic Director, Lori Vance (MS, LCSW, ATR), Express Yourself Milwaukee is comprised of a core team of seven artists who have been together for five years and who collectively demonstrate a strong commitment to community-based performing arts. Ongoing relationships with Milwaukee based artists, such as Kwabena Antoine Nixon, Muhibb Dyer, and Muneer Bahaudeen augment the creative process and performance. The contracted artists are joined each year by a myriad of guest artists who lend their creative talents to inform various aspects of the project. For example, in our first year, internationally acclaimed poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca, worked with the youth and staff. The overall quality of program is enhanced and accelerated by pairing internationally recognized artists with the local EYM artists. It is the commitment to ongoing relationships, collaboration, and artistic merit that are the cornerstone of the Express Yourself model, and mark its uniqueness as an organization.

Community Involvement

We believe that long-term relationships through the arts result in long-term benefits for the community at a relatively low cost. The skills and lessons learned through participation in EYM, along with the resulting increased self-esteem, have a lasting impact on the lives of these struggling youth. In this way, Express Yourself seeks to change societal patterns where at-risk youth have few or no outlets for creativity in which to channel their frustrations. This is accomplished by creating a peaceful environment where it is safe to collaborate with a diverse group of peers and adults, thereby decreasing individual and institutional isolation. Express Yourself offers an invigorating strategy to enhance school performance, ensure opportunities for self-expression and increase access to other aspects of community life. The program is not a substitute for arts education, but rather an intervention tool to reverse negative patterns and create alternatives for healthy futures.

Diversity of Staff, Board, Program Content and Audience

Because the organizational structure of Express Yourself Milwaukee is based on collaboration, one of the great successes of our organization has been our ability to assimilate a diverse, multi-cultural group of individuals to provide ongoing support. The core staff is comprised of professional community artists and art therapists of diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives all working toward a unifying goal, and the Board of Directors is composed of prominent members in the artistic and educational community.

New collaborative relationships, like that of the Milwaukee County Detention Center which began in 2006, are established through our work with current agencies which provide increased visibility and proven success with the EYM model. Partnering agencies also link students with complimentary services that are identified through participating in group sessions. As individual organizations work with EYM, their understanding of the target population is greatly enhanced, inspiring further advocacy for the needs of this demographic at institutional levels. Ultimately, collaboration reinforces the social responsibility of the artists and increases the visibility of the students and the Express Yourself Milwaukee program, thereby expanding our audience and performance opportunities.

A distinguishing element of the EYM program is its ability to utilize the creative process to form a single, unified community by bringing together youth from diverse program sites. Youth work with a variety of art forms within their own residential “community” and then join together in a single, multi-disciplinary public performance at Centennial Hall.

Last edited by Olde Godsile.   Page last modified on May 18, 2006, at 08:16 AM

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