It’s a brisk Saturday morning in April, and a group of inner city students are rehearsing a musical of their own making at East Side Community High School on 12th Street and 1st Avenue.
This story doesn’t seem unique, at first, but the production isn’t your typical high school musical.
Among this group are teens who have endured abuse in all its forms, been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, and have become caretakers for their siblings because their own parents are addicts. The Possibility Project has brought them all together to sing about these and other experiences, hoping to help them transform the negative forces in their lives into means for positive change, raising awareness for these and other issues through the performing arts.
Throughout the ten-month school year, kids ages 13-19 learn to build relationships across differences, resolve their conflicts in peaceable ways, and engage in community improvement projects while writing and performing an original musical inspired by the stories of their lives. This year’s musical, “Home Free,” at El Museo del Barrio at 1250 Fifth Avenue, will be performed from April 25-28, and addresses the themes of poverty, bullying, homelessness, gun violence, and death, among other problems that most of the kids have previously never spoken about to anyone.
“These students go through traumatic life-altering events like abandonment and sexual abuse, and they blame themselves,” said Jeff Flowers, the program’s artistic director. “They think they’re alone until they get here and realize that other people have gone through something similar, and they see that there isn’t something inherently wrong with them.”
Not all of their young people are “troubled,” however, according to the program’s founder and president, Paul Griffin.
“The adolescent years are an emotional time, no matter what the circumstances, and the collision of vulnerability and responsibility can often play out in destructive forms,” said Griffin. “We try to bring together a diverse group, some who are struggling and some who are not, so they can learn from each other,” he explained.
Kids are selected for the program based on their availability, willingness to collaborate, and concern for various issues, rather than on talent or ability.
Isamar Ubiera, 18, a member of this year’s Production Team, said that the experience of hearing everyone’s story is always powerful and intense.
“You wouldn’t know these things happened to them, not even to your own friends, because it’s not something you’d normally talk about,” she said. “But we can’t change without knowing what the problem is.”
The next step is helping the teens figure out how to use what they’ve been through to create positive social change. The Production Team, a group of youth from the previous year’s cast, work with the staff to write the script for a show with six vignettes that relate to the youth’s personal stories.
“We believe our shows should be on the level of Broadway,” said Flowers. “People come in with low expectations because they’re kids. They think it’s a talent show, but it’s not. It’s risky. This show has edge.”
Because the themes are so intense, they must be dealt with carefully.
“You can’t just throw rape and violence at an audience,” said Kelly Claus, director of operations. “When you live in a hard world, it’s hard to see that hope is possible, but the show has to be about hope, too, not just hurt.”
Students also participate in Community Action Projects twice a year by choosing an issue of concern and designing a challenge to raise awareness for it. Last June, one group took a sex-ed game show to Union Square Park, and had no trouble finding participants wiling to answer questions about the effectiveness of a condom vs. the pull-out method.
Another group took their project up to 125th Street, fashioning a coffin out of individual cardboard tombstones, asking passerby if they’ve ever lost anyone to gun violence, and, if so, to write their name on the tombstone. Participation there was high, too.
Flunking out of school and often years behind, when young people see they can commit to the Project, they see that they also have the ability to follow through with school, which many participants ultimately go back and finish. Their grades improve, and practical skills like time management, goal setting and future planning also become part of their repertoire. For many, relationships with family and friends also improve.
“Even if I don’t feel like waking up on a Saturday, I don’t want to let my friends down,” said Ashley Rivera, 17, who attends East Side Community High School. “If I break my commitment, my classmates will look at me as someone who gives up too easily.”
Rivera, who lives on the Lower East Side, says that she is shy by nature and didn’t talk much before the program. Now, she is slowly coming out of her shell.
“I’m gaining the confidence to speak up,” she said.
Unless they join the Production Team, the program caps after two years of involvement.
“We don’t want them to become too dependent on us,” said Claus. “We want them to go out into the world and put what they’ve learned into action.”
The Possibility Project grew out Paul Griffin’s Washington, D.C. based City at Peace program, which he created in response to a lack of action ameliorating the rising tide of youth violence and racial division. Griffin moved to NYC in 2000 and began building the program here for the same reasons.
“These kids need a way to experience what they’ve been through as a way to understand the world around them,” said Flowers, speaking to the program’s ultimate goal. “Here, they find their purpose. We’re teaching them that they have choices…that there are possibilities out there for them.”
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