Reflections on Silence Is Violence: A #BlackLivesMatter Event

On January 27, 2015, YPT organized an open mic-style pop-up event to respond to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in America. Held at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Silence Is Violence: A #BlackLivesMatter Event featured YPT students and professional artists reading work inspired by the movement. The event culminated in space for community reflection and response.Farah headshot

YPT Program Associate and Teaching Artist Farah Lawal Harris co-produced and emceed Silence Is Violence, in addition to reading her own original poem at the event. Read on for Farah’s thoughts on the event, the movement and the importance of highlighting student voices!

 


My name is Farah Lawal Harris. I am a Washington, DC-based actress, poet and playwright; a founding member of Wild Women Theatre Company; the Program Associate at Young Playwrights’ Theater and a YPT Teaching Artist. Working at YPT has always allowed me to explore the intersections of my identity, but never so much as when we decided to do Silence Is Violence: A #BlackLivesMatter Event.

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Since Mike Brown’s death on August 9th of last year, I have been on edge. As a black woman in America, I am always aware of my surroundings. But the onslaught of news stories that followed the events in Ferguson, about people who look like me and those I love dying at the hands of police, became too much for me. I felt so vulnerable and so small. As an artist, I had no idea how to turn these feelings into something that could be shared with others. As an educator, I was unsure of how to engage my students in this important discussion. All I knew was that I had to do something to keep this conversation alive – both for myself and for the young people I serve.

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Photo credit: ShelbyWorks

Silence Is Violence was born out of the desire to allow YPT’s students to express their own thoughts on an issue that affects them directly. Too often, young people are excluded from conversations about their generation. To help bridge this gap, some of our YPT Teaching Artists facilitated artistic activities about #BlackLivesMatter in the classroom.

Our students came up with poems, monologues and essays that were both beautiful and heartbreaking. We then performed many of those pieces at Silence Is Violence: some were performed by the students who wrote them, while others were read by professional actors who chose to volunteer their time. A few local spoken word and performance artists also performed pieces about #BlackLivesMatter and audience members were invited to participate in their own artistic response after the performances. The event ended up being a powerful collage of voices.

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YPT student Nakia participates in the #IHaveADream response exercise after the event.

Since Silence Is Violence, I have received emails and messages from audience members and involved artists about the event’s impact. So many people noted how powerful our students’ perspectives were on the matter and how they felt catharsis through hearing those words. Silence is violence, and expression is freedom. I am grateful that YPT created a safe space for our students and community members to feel free and to hear that they matter.

Click here for more photos from the event!
Click here for more photos from the event!

For more information on Silence Is Violence and resources to continue the conversation around #BlackLivesMatter, visit our website.

David Speaks on the Role of the Arts in Students’ Lives – Why We Do What We Do

This year I and YPT were honored to receive the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award for visionary leadership. On Monday, June 7th, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we received the award during a fun and compelling ceremony that highlighted the importance of the work of nonprofits in our community. I am so grateful to the Meyer Foundation, for the award, but also for the simple opportunity to share a few thoughts about why we do what we do. I’ve had several requests since that evening to post or share my remarks in some way, so here they are. I hope you’ll in some way connect with how we at YPT feel about the arts in students’ lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010
“Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to Julie, Rick, Carmen, Amy, the board of directors and everyone at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, to have their amazing support in my life and the life of Young Playwrights’ Theater. As those of us running organizations know all too well, the proof is in the people. And the Meyer Foundation is filled with true partners, true advocates and true friends to us in the nonprofit sector. I’ve dedicated my life to helping students express themselves and engage the world around them. Because I believe as much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves. We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future. And that beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, students need to be able to think for themselves. They need to be able to imagine, envision, and explain. They need to understand – not just know, but to understand what they’re learning and why. They need to be able to stand up, put their ideas forward and defend them. And they need to be able to inspire and be inspired.

I know that as I reflect on important moments in my life when I truly learned something, most of them didn’t happen sitting silently at a desk. Most of them were experiences, conversations, dialogues with other people that taught me something I didn’t know and stirred something inside me I didn’t know I had. And in this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting there’s an even greater understanding that comes from being in a room face to face, explaining with our whole selves what we mean, and learning about the world from direct experience and dialogue with our fellow human beings.

So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, and that students can do well on the latest standardized tests, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, what we want to look like and what we want to represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have? How will students compete in the global arena of ideas if they have none to share? And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

At Young Playwrights’ Theater we give students the tools they need to engage the world.  And in turn they share their dreams, their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.  Every student writes a play. Every student hears their play performed by professional actors in the classroom. We share the students’ work with their community through readings, festivals and tours and we pay the students for the opportunity to produce their plays. The students introduce their work and speak about why they wrote what they wrote; they drive rehearsals and recognize their own power in the process. Truancy rates drop when we’re in the classroom. Homework completion soars with our assignments.  We see with our assessments that students’ critical and creative thinking improve dramatically during the program. And teachers, students and parents tell us how much the program has meant to them. Because for many of our students, it’s the first time someone has asked them what they think. It’s their first time to really engage in class.  It’s their first time to tell their stories.  And it’s their first time to realize their own true potential – a revelation of who they are, and who they could be.

Tonight, this honor helps me and all of us at YPT know that what we do matters – that having a vision, and thinking outside the box, makes a difference; that we have partners who believe in our mission; and that service toward a greater good is possible, even today. And that’s a huge gift. I want to thank my fellow recipients, who bring hope, love and strength to so many; thank you to my amazing staff at Young Playwrights’ Theater, Patrick Torres, Brigitte Moore, Elizabeth Andrews, who inspire me every day with their dedication, their passion and their generosity; to our wonderful board of directors and our amazing chair Brian Kennedy; thank you to the greatest Founder a successor could wish for, Karen Zacarias, and of course to our students, for their dedication, their inspiration and their awe-inspiring work; and to my family –  my parents, my sister, my beautiful wife Alex, my son Henry and my two-week old daughter Della for their love and grace in my life. I am grateful to do this work and I am so very grateful to be here tonight.  Thank you very, very much.”

Click here to see more info on the award and the video compilation of the evening, produced by the Meyer Foundation.

Hope to see you soon!

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO