Healing youth communities through art

Lana Tilley, Development Director, speaks about the impact they are building over the years, and what will come next following the opening of RYSE Commons.

Courtesy of RYSE Center

Could you describe your organization’s mission and way of working?

Lana Tilley: RYSE is located in Richmond, California, and creates safe spaces grounded in social justice that build youth power. We center the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and Young People of Color (BIYPOC), and we lead with love and rage to cultivate healing and build movement. RYSE’s Media, Arts, Culture programming facilitates exposure to, exploration and creation of personal, political, and expressive art to promote personal healing and shift narratives about youth.

RYSE culture is centered around collective liberation and uplifting those most impacted by structural violence and harm. To work well within the space, you need to have deep love for centering the voice and needs of Black, Indigenous and minoritized young people and their families. That applies to our members, to our interns, and up to our Executive Director.

RYSE is explicit and transparent in our strategies of healing justice, racial justice, gender justice, harm reduction, and creative youth leadership and in how this shows up in our work for transformation. All RYSE staff are provided extensive competency training, and work to align budgets, programming, curriculum, partnerships and policy with the values and outcomes of our Theory of Liberation (ToL) at all levels from program, to advocacy, to admin, to our Board.

40% of current staff are former RYSE members having engaged as youth program participants, interns and project lead before formally joining staff. This connection to our membership is essential to RYSE, as it ensures that young people and their families are centered in all strategy shifts and pivots. Our programs, staffing, and design of space is always driven by young people, who will be critical in thinking about who we be and become as a movement, a space and a community.

It is moving in partnership, nurturing practices of culture and identity for healing ourselves, healing communities, and healing systems.

Who is your primary target?

Lana Tilley: Our work primarily serves young people, ages 13 to 21, living in communities most underserved and marginalized in the West Contra Costa County here in the Bay Area. The city of Richmond, where RYSE is located, is the most densely populated and diverse region of the county. BIYPOC in West Contra Costa County bear the burden of multiple systemic inequities and face persistent dehumanization, stigma, and criminalization by schools, police, media, community and public systems. These inequities result in disproportionately high rates of homicide, gun violence, high school drop-out and punitive discipline, unintended or early pregnancy, poverty and unemployment, ruptured relationships and sense of self- and community-efficacy, and mental health crises. RYSE is working to tend, treat, and heal the institutional injuries that put our communities at risk of direct and acute injury. We also engage adults working and living in our community in learning, reckoning and reimaging ways to better bear their responsibilities for the wellbeing of young people.

RYSE Commons

What is unique about your program?

Lana Tilley: Instead of focusing only on the outcomes of structural inequity (food insecurity, gaps in healthcare, divestment in incarcerated youth), we are a systems change organization, focused both on the day-to-day barriers faced by Richmond youth, as well as the larger driving the policy and legislation necessary for reparation and healing.

Our commitment to healing justice is a perfect example of our micro/macro approach to systems change: On a daily level RYSE internally has built our program implementation to include art, music and culture as a critical component of young people’s healing. All of our arts programming is oriented towards a healing framework, and all of our healing work integrates arts and culture.

What that looks like is a young person working with a therapist and then moving into the studio to create a song that allows them to share their experience and path towards healing. It looks like the music studio being designed to be in a high-traffic area of our new building, so that the culture of healing justice through the arts is visible and systemic. It looks like young people having opportunities to experiment with poetry and develop their creative voice, as well as engage in intensive projects and be paid for their work. It looks like young people finding transformative intergenerational relationships where they are trusted and have receptive audiences, leadership power, and creative resources to move and shift attitudes, practices, and policies. It is moving in partnership, nurturing practices of culture and identity for healing ourselves, healing communities, and healing systems.

Can you describe the community you operate in?

Lana Tilley: We operate in Richmond, in West Contra Costa County (WCCC) where Black, Brown and Indigenous young people have long led the way as artists, activists and innovators. Yet Richmond has weathered structural and community challenges acutely impacting working class youth of color and their families. Young people have grown up amidst community and state violence, felt generational effects of their criminalization and the decimation of vital health, education, and neighborhood resources, and continue to navigate displacement across the Bay Area. These conditions render arts and technology resources in other parts of the Bay Area difficult to access, and funding for arts programming continues to be devalued and severely disinvested in our school district.

Did the Moleskine Creative tools program meet your expectations? And How?

Lana Tilley: RYSE works to ensure young people have access to the highest quality of tools and resources that match their brilliance and creativity. The Moleskine notebooks and cahiers are beautiful, high-quality materials that inspire deep thinking, creative expression, and vibrance.

How do you use creativity to foster social change in your community?

Lana Tilley: RYSE is guided by our Theory of Liberation working toward the vision of these youth founders: “strong, healthy, united communities where equity is the norm and violence is neither desired nor required, creating a strong foundation for future generations to thrive.” Toward this vision, our outcomes include 1) Young people have emotional, physical, political safety to acquire tools, skills, and resources they need to understand and change inequities, 2) Young people construct their own narrative and those of their communities, 3) Systems takeover by next generation leaders committed to a platform for liberation in which cultural work and race are central. Creative youth development is a key strategy in RYSE’s approach.

When young people first began dreaming and visioning a transformative space in Richmond and the larger Bay Area Community back in 2002, they were clear that music, arts, culture, justice, and healing had to be core to the work. These young luminaries visioned a world where both their creativity and their heart had a safe place to reimagine and dream all that we are manifesting today. As we stand on the brink of emerging from this pandemic into RYSE Commons, a newly constructed 45,000 sq. ft. youth designed campus for music, arts, culture and healing, we are reminded about the audacity and courage that our founding youth leaders and staff had to dream something that most people said was impossible and would never happen in Richmond. As we prepare to open to the public on May 14, 2022, we hope that every ounce of the new space is filled with the voices, song, and creativity of our young people, our staff, and future generations of children, youth, and their families.

How did you use these new creative tools?

Lana Tilley: The timing for receiving the Moleskine creative tools was serendipitous. After over a year of working remotely, conducting programs and services virtually, RYSE staff and young people stepped into our newly constructed RYSE Commons campus to begin planning for Grand Opening. Each staff and youth leader received a journal and/or notebook to utilize in planning. In small groups, and as a community, these groups worked to design cultural agreements for the space that promote healing and relationship-building; to envision the physical components needed to create a space that reflected young people’s cultures, ideas, innovations, and inspirations; and to outline protocols for the technology and tools. We conducted community-building activities, we created art together, and reflected on our personal healing and political journeys as a part of the work ahead. All of this was facilitated and reflected in our journals and notebooks. All of this will help guide the Grand Opening of our new RYSE Commons campus in 2022 for the broader community of young people, as an anchor and hub for BIYPOC-leadership and vision in the Bay Area.

How are you integrating those creative tools as part of your existing initiatives?

Lana Tilley: In addition to the central example shared above, the creative tools were utilized by our poetry program, our visual arts program, our youth leadership teams, and our tutoring programs.

Do you think new initiatives can be developed thanks to these new tools?

Lana Tilley: Young people’s ideas are constantly shaping and re-shaping the initiatives, programs and advocacy activated at RYSE. The journals and notebooks are helpful tools in supporting their creativity.

Do you believe Creativity can change the world?

Lana Tilley: Yes. For over 13 years, through inquiry among young people, RYSE understands that the root of violence is dehumanization (of self and of others). Our creative youth development (CYD) model humanizes through reflection, connection, meaning-making, and narrative building. Young people have identified CYD as fundamental for healing from violence and distress (interpersonal and institutional), and for building power to dream and enliven the community and relationships they need and deserve.

Oftentimes in movement work we talk about dismantling systems, and don’t take the time to dream up new liberatory systems. For RYSE, young people have been dreaming up RYSE Commons as a hub for youth leadership, which we recognize as an alternative to system approaches to young people that only see them as deficits to be fixed or managed. RYSE Commons is about creating a liberatory space where young people can lead, create, innovate, and play. It is a space that brings together community towards common values that centers love, justice and our collective learning and liberation.

Are there other cultural offers/services of a similar kind your beneficiaries could choose from?

RYSE’s approach and expertise is rooted in youth-centered/ youth-led inquiry, healing-centered relationships, and liberatory partnership. We are the only organization in our county with an integrative model that holistically blends arts/culture, community health/healing, education and youth justice, and youth organizing/leadership, rooted in the priorities of BIYPOC.

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