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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

“When I was growing up, the only artists I knew about were White guys from Europe,” said Nakia, a promising, young playwright speaking to the crowd of adults gathered at the Young Playwrights’ Theater annual gala in Washington, D.C. But that, she shared, was before YPT came to her sophomore English class. She described her path through early high school up to that moment as “coasting through” and disengaged. “For a long time, I didn’t have a dream,” she shared, and had no clear vision about what — or who — she wanted to be. But all of that changed when she became involved with YPT and encountered playwrights and storytellers who looked like her, and through her writing, she began to see herself as a powerful storyteller herself.

“I found what I want to be. And what I want to be — is an artist.”

Jorge reluctantly attended his first YPT workshop four years ago, coaxed along by his cousin. Now, he commanded the crowd with an infectious gregariousness as he described his former self, a shy young man who avoided after-school activities out of fear of being judged. But his involvement with YPT allowed him and his unique voice to blossom. “The staff and instructors made me feel like my words mattered.”

Today, he coaches younger students on their writing and expression, urging them not to be afraid to write the untold stories inside them.

YPT Executive Director Brigitte Winter spoke passionately to the power of the experiences YPT creates for D.C. youth: “They come to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories — and the endings are theirs to write.” Nakia’s and Jorge’s were just two of those stories, in one city and one program. But behind those stories are thousands of stories of young people across the country whose voices are unlocked and set free each year through programs like YPT and other powerful arts offerings in schools.

And at a time of real threat to our civic vibrancy and imagination, when school and arts funding exist in the jagged crosshairs of draconian budget cuts, their voices sound powerful testimony to the real value of — and need for — continued investment in the arts in our schools for our young people.

That’s the message Ed Trust President John B. King Jr. had for the room full of adults gathered in support of Nakia, Jorge, and other young storytellers. King challenged them to fight: to fight for the arts for our young people, for opportunities to grow and sound their voices and stories powerfully; to fight for rich opportunities for young people to experience a world beyond their neighborhoods and to tell the stories of where they come from and where they are going; to fight for rich public education and robust, well-rounded learning, including the arts.

As I listened from the back of the room, looking out over the sea of supporters as diverse as D.C. itself — eyes settling on those two young people at the podium — I thought of the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

The value of robust arts education and programs like YPT in contributing to skill-building in literacy, writing, critical thinking, and creativity has long been evidenced in research. But as was clear in the words of those two students, their involvement in the arts also gave them something beyond simple skills; it gave them power over their own stories and a vehicle for powerfully voicing those stories.

We must fight to create space within (and outside of) our classrooms and schools for young people to tell their own stories and the stories of their families and communities — to write and give voice to the stories too often swept up from the print floors of textbook publishing companies and discarded.

As King challenged the room of young storytellers and adult allies: Write — and fight — on.

Photo Credit: Jeff Gilliland

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