Listen Up

Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal have sparked a heated and important national conversation. Many intelligent thinkers are trying to make sense of this tragedy, searching for ways that we as a nation can heal and move forward. As I reflect on the work that we at YPT do with young people, specifically teenagers, I feel compelled to speak from my point of view as both an artist and an educator.

As adults, we have got to listen to teenagers. Now more than ever. We have got to let African American teenagers and teenagers of color and all teenagers know that they deserve safety, health and happiness, and that their voices matter.

Too many teenagers in our society are plagued by violence in their schools, in their homes and in their neighborhoods. They are marginalized because of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia and combinations thereof. They are judged unfairly, labeled “dangerous,” “threatening” and “difficult.”

I am deeply troubled by all the negativity surrounding the “millennial” generation. Millennials are supposedly “lazy” and “entitled.” They’re attached to their phones. They’re the “me generation.” At the same time, studies report that the time to invest in young people is in early childhood, an excellent strategy but one that I worry may inadvertently suggest a hidden corollary: that by the time children have become teenagers, they cannot learn, cannot grow, cannot make important contributions to their communities.

In my five years with YPT, I have met amazing teenagers. YPT’s teenage playwrights have written insightful plays that comment on real issues facing their communities such as gang violence, teen pregnancy, bias crime, bullying, gentrification and immigration. And they’ve also penned delightful comedies that lift the spirits of all who watch or read them. I’ve met teenagers who surprised me by sitting silent in the back of the class for a whole semester, only to hand in brilliant plays. I’ve seen teenagers work together and forge connections with other students who were different from themselves.

When I walk into a high school classroom, I know that I will have to work hard to earn the respect and trust of the teenage students. Why should this reflect poorly on them? Teenagers are savvy. Just like adults, they ask us to prove ourselves. That doesn’t make them “bad” or “difficult” – it is their right as human beings.

Now more than ever we need to empower young people. We need to listen to their stories and honor their perspectives. We need to encourage and allow them to speak their truths to help us as adults “widen our circles of compassion,” as President Obama put it. Our circles of compassion must grow to encompass all teenagers. To do that, we’re going to have to listen up.

Nicole Jost
Artistic Director

David’s Lunch with Michelle Rhee

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Michelle Rhee. It was a rare opportunity – 60 minutes of one-on-one conversation with the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, one of the most famous and controversial figures in education today – and a long-term advocate for YPT. My hope was to share with her the latest developments at YPT and to hear her vision for the next steps in the school system. I wasn’t disappointed. I was immediately impressed by her candor, her humor and the clear inspiration she derives from DC students. I shared with her the clear data from our latest, innovative evaluations of student growth in our programs, showing how much students’ critical and creative thinking develop through our process. You can see these results for high school and elementary school on our website. She was impressed – and reiterated that she wished more nonprofits had this kind of data to back up their programs. We discussed how YPT has worked for years with people like Dr. Barry Oreck to develop evaluations that allow us to capture lightning in a bottle – and truly see the impact of our work on student learning.

We talked about the planned arts magnet middle school, and had an in-depth discussion about how the arts community could play a bigger role in helping the school system become the national model we all want it to be. As I said to the DC School Board three years ago when testifying on behalf of the Arts Standards we at YPT helped to write, I believe the school system doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars reinventing the wheel in creating arts programs. Instead, we should find ways to streamline communications between nonprofits and DCPS and pursue funding streams to support the amazing artists and organizations already working with DC Public School students, as we expand and fully integrate our services. With our theatre community now only second to New York City in the nation, Young Playwrights’ Theater and the rest of the community are ready to provide all DC students with high quality arts education experiences. With a true partnership between nonprofits and schools, we could bring professional artists into every classroom and quickly establish a national model for arts integration throughout DCPS – if only the system and our nonprofit community could work more directly, and more clearly, together, as I told the Chancellor.

I also brought up the question of how we as a community can go beyond test scores to gauge and better serve students’ development. We talked about engaging parents more in their students’ education and how the system can better serve parents, families and communities overall. I pledged my interest and support for her efforts in developing a stronger arts education model throughout DC Public Schools and she pledged her continued support of YPT. By the end of the hour we knew each other better, she knew YPT better – and we left the lunch excited to find new ways YPT and DCPS can collaborate. When you come to our upcoming performances or programs, don’t be surprised if you see her there, cheering our students on. Ultimately we both want the same thing – to ensure that DC students receive the world-class education they so richly deserve. Isn’t that really the goal?

Producing Artistic Director and CEO