API youth find voices through art and community

YouthCAN participants cook Korean food for elders at the International Community Health Services during the Summer 2014 culinary arts session. (Photo by Minh Nguyen)
YouthCAN participants cook Korean food for elders at the International Community Health Services during the Summer 2014 culinary arts session. (Photo by Minh Nguyen)

Over the last decade, the YouthCAN program of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing) has been offering opportunities to 15-to-19-year-olds of Asian Pacific Islander heritage to engage in their communities and find their true voices through explorations in art.

Right now, they are studying the work of the Asian-American avant-garde, including Yayoi Kusama, Zhang Huan and Tehching Tsieh.

“We’re studying how these artists have used their art as a tool for liberation, as a means to overcome what is expected of them and to assert who they truly are,” says YouthCAN program manager and museum exhibit specialist. “When the teens first learned about Teching Tsieh, and his performance piece where he spent an entire year outdoors, one of them reflected that the artists showed her how seamless life and art can be. Another teen reflected that she is unused to seeing Asians who act so boldly.”

The award-winning arts and leadership program works to connect youth to their heritage, as well as help them explore their own identities as informed by social and political issues. They create hands-on art projects, developed and led by mentor artists, which are displayed in the Frank Fujii Youth Space Gallery. Their work has also appeared in The Wing’s storefront window, Chinatown-International District’s Canton Alley, the City of Seattle’s Ethnic Heritage Gallery, and other community venues.

Nguyen. (Photo by Kyle Croft)
Nguyen. (Photo by Kyle Croft)

Recently, the YouthCAN participants approached Nguyen with an idea of their own: making a zine of the Chinatown-International District.

“When teens come up with projects on their own and show will to create art outside of the program, these are moments when I feel the program is making a difference in terms of helping teens think of new ways to approach issues that are important to them. “

I caught up with Nguyen recently to talk more about the evolution of the program.

Could you tell me about how the YouthCAN program got started?

YouthCAN started in 2003, long before my time as program manager (I started at the beginning of this year). The story goes that museum staff noticed students hanging out aimlessly in the neighborhood so they worked with social service agencies to create an after-school arts-based program.

The program as it is today is equally committed to art and civic engagement. We provide opportunities for teens to experiment with many types of art and a space for them to install and exhibit their work. As well, we pair every art session with a social theme or a piece of history. For example, this summer YouthCAN learned about food security and systemic barriers to good food as they learned about food photography.

What were some highlights from last year’s program?

My personal highlight has been seeing how YouthCAN students carry the values we discuss in YouthCAN outside of the program. We spend a lot of time in the program talking about being an active community member, and how that involves showing up to support other people, or to weigh in on issues that affect the community.

When I run into YouthCAN at community forums and art openings, or when I learn that some of them have continued practicing an art form long after that session is over, those are moments of success for me.

What’s in store for the teens this year?

This fall, the participants are learning about new experiments in Asian art. There is so much provocative and innovative art right now by both Asian artists in America and Asia. We will be studying these artists who are pushing us to rethink big issues in society, and will be making experimental art of our own.

YouthCAN student with summer teaching artist Viviann Nguyen decorating skateboards at MOHAI’s Innoskate day, a YouthCAN field trip. (Photo by Minh Nguyen)
YouthCAN student with summer teaching artist Viviann Nguyen decorating skateboards at MOHAI’s Innoskate day, a YouthCAN field trip. (Photo by Minh Nguyen)

I have also been working on developing meaningful partnerships with other youth programs, both within the Chinatown/International District and in the greater Seattle area. There are so many other youth programs here that do great work, and have upheld the neighborhood for many years. I have been part of a neighborhood API (Asian Pacific Islander) Youth Workers’ Coalition and collectively we are figuring out how to be in communication with each other and support each other to provide excellent assistance and resource access for all the youth who come to any of our programs.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face with your program?

A challenge that we face is figuring out how to create a comprehensive and relevant arts program that is at the same time as inclusive as possible. There are API youth in the program who are American-born, already interested in art, and are looking for a space to develop their art practice. There have also been youth in the program who are recent immigrants [who are here for] more than an art program, and need a translator and assistance with homework. How can we create a program that is beneficial to those two types of youth, and all the ones in between? If you have suggestions, we’d love to hear them.

How do you think the arts contributes to a young person’s development?

Critical arts education is crucial to youth development, I firmly believe this. I’m less concerned with encouraging youth to explore career tracts in the arts, although that will happen naturally. What’s more important is that, regardless of what youth choose to do with their lives, an arts education provides them new tools and avenues to have a voice and a space to explore what it means to be who they are in this very confusing time, in their lives and in the world. Art is a voice, and for youth of color, an indispensable one.

YouthCAN is a free program at The Wing open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the school year. Learn more at www.wingluke.org/youthcan.

This story was originally published in the International Examiner

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