From Zero to Forty – A youth program from scratch


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By Maya Reisz

Photo Courtesy of Kitsilano Neighbourhood House




The Youth Evening of Arts was mini arts festival planned and presented by Westside Youth, ages 10-25, as part of the grand re-opening celebration for The Kitsilano Neighbourhood House. Over the course of 6 months, 52 youth were involved as committee members, performing artists and general volunteers, making it a unique for-youth-by-youth experience. At the event itself, 40 youth volunteered, 18 performed, 11 learned to speed paint and 8 participated in the live speed painting competition. 72 pieces of artwork were displayed in the youth designed gallery, not including the geometric art installation representing 150 individual pieces from Westside community members.



Maya Reisz            Dear Reader,


I took a big chance last May. With no experience in program planning, I created the Youth Evening of Arts for Kitsilano Neighbourhood House. Why? In the aftermath, I can rationalize it as:


  • I was inspired by Kit’s houses’ history of community led programming.
  • I wanted to do work that felt meaningful.
  • I thought it would be fun to work with a bunch of young artists.
  • Someone needed to do it.
  • Why not? 


Truly, at the time I accepted the offer, I just had a strong gut feeling, one that tickled my imagination and catalyzed my heartbeat. I felt the possibility and wanted to see it happen. Mary Bennet, the celebration planner, gave me complete creative control and a shoulder to lean on. So, I dedicated six months of my life to a possibility, witnessing frustrating moments in juxtaposition with creative successes and a host of tiny miracles. Now, I carry with me a sublime feeling of nurturing a notion I held on my own into a vibrant success shared by many. Here is what I learned from connecting with amazing local youth, businesses, community centers and members to collaboratively construct a youth program from scratch.


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 1.54.25 PM1)   Seek Support and Share


Just because it is your idea, doesn’t mean you have to develop it alone. I invited friends, roommates and anyone who showed an interest, to join me in brain storming and volunteering. Halfway through the project 2 young adults officially enlisted to be Youth Art Coordinators and facilitate youth committees for the festival. Asking volunteers and the youth to help build the project, from the beginning, kept them committed and the project strong and versatile. Integrating various perspectives and juggling all the different ideas was tricky, but having the groups decide together alleviated pressure, kept the project open to alternatives and was always a fun challenge.


2)   Space and a steady stream


Kits House had limited space available during the renovation time. Luckily, the Point Grey MLA, David Eby, makes his office space available on weekends and evenings to community groups with a purpose. This office was our home base where we could meet regularly and keep the project alive. Having a steady stream of meetings and events in the same space enabled us to create memories, form habits and develop a sense of familiarity.


3)   For-Youth-By-Youth


YEA was based upon a simple truth: Youth have their own culture, and no one knows it better than they do. I did not want to plan an event for them. I wanted them to do it for themselves and for their community. I created plans until youth got involved, once they did, I took every reasonable opportunity to ask youth what they thought and how to make it happen. Thus, YEA was about empowering youth over anything else.  This meant that all adult volunteers had to relinquish control, hand over the reigns, LISTEN, and take a supporting role.


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 1.55.35 PM4)   LISTEN


Listening is an active process. It doesn’t mean just nodding in approval. It means a willingness to change your plans or ideas according to what is being said. When a youth presented an idea we asked questions, played with possibilities and what ifs.


5)   Outreach: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed youth can create a youth program…”


The most effective method of outreach is word of mouth from a trusted adult or peer, aided by a recognizable image, web page and/or social media presence.  To get people talking, I started e-mailing established youth programs and schools. Teachers and youth programmers understood our idea and could put it into context; YEA was a volunteer opportunity, a chance to show your artwork or perform, or a fun way to meet other young artists. The first three youth to get involved in YEA heard about the project from a trusted art teacher and/or youth director.

There was a summer-long struggle of experimenting with contacting different organizations, creating gathering opportunities and standing at the Kits House booth during local street festivals. After speaking to hundreds of Youth though numerous outreach attempts, most of them never returned. Only the original three youth continuously assisted with outreach attempts and eventually brought friends.

 Constant involvement in the nascent stages of YEA kept three youth engaged and feeling a sense of ownership. They saw potential and became the heart, spirit and brains of YEA. YEA did not start with a roster of 40 youth, it began with three enthusiastic and engaged youth who advocated for the program and took on big leadership roles in later stages. Initial outreach was successful because it inspired a few, not because it amassed many.


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 1.54.56 PM6)   Practice what you preach.


YEA began to grab attention once we started making art.  Attempting outreach at Khatsalano and Greek Days taught us how quickly people lose interest in ‘just’ an idea. We would approach a person to discuss YEA and they would twitch with a need to meet a friend, get food, or stare at merchandise elsewhere. Similarly, youth are offered activities incessantly through social media, their schools, parents and peers. YEA had to become touchable, a sight to see, something to be inquired about. Our small group came together and created the Triangle Assembly Project (TAP); an installation made of paintable interlocking equilateral cardboard triangles.


TAP successfully raised awareness at the Kerrisdale Community Center volunteer fair. Youth proudly advocated to their peers about the project, which was a demonstration of our purpose; a project designed, built and facilitated by youth. TAP was something we could put on our website and facebook- “look, we actually do things!” Most importantly, it provided a way for new youth to imagine how they could become involved.



7)   Open structure and creative ambiance


You cannot force a person to become empowered. YEA, from the structure of the festival to the cadence of our meetings, was facilitated with the intention to provide youth with the opportunity to choose or create options. YEA was composted of 4 committees, each coordinated by a young adult. Each committee had a project for youth to gravitate towards: design a visual arts gallery, build and facilitate a collaborative community project, create a performance showcase or develop a workshop. There was no right or wrong way to approach a project. If something needed to be considered we asked youth guiding questions so they developed their own understanding and then made an informed choice.


Directly asking youth to just tell us their ideas at the beginning of a meeting rarely worked. It was unnatural to innovate on command. So, we fostered an environment where youth felt comfortable and creative. At meetings we listened to music, played theater games, and provided food and tea. There were markers and paper available if youth just wanted to make art or doodle the whole time. We devoted time to checking in, to let youth vent and show them we wanted to listen. We played games or acted silly, to have fun and not just produce or evaluate ideas. At times, we did visualization exercises to awaken the imagination or shared concrete examples of other projects to yield inspiration.


Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 1.56.12 PM8)   Beyond my control


YEA grew in a lot of different, unexpected ways due to committed and energetic youth. Youth that came regularly and had an idea in mind really shaped the event itself.


Hannah: Hannah came into the project with the idea for an art competition. She was given the opportunity to run a youth led workshop. Together with two dedicated friends, Jooyun and Cindy, they created the Battle of the Arts for Youth (BAY). Their speed-painting workshop was taught by professional artist Carl Baird and fed into four teams of youth, most of whom had not speed painted before, having a live competition at the end of the night.


Poppy: Poppy was one of the first youth involved in YEA. She realized the potential of YEA when it was just an idea and helped to create TAP. Without anyone asking, she found a sponsor for the TAP project (Coe Lumber and Building Supplies ltd.) and created a connection with her art teacher at Kitsilano Secondary. By brining TAP into her school, she doubled the amount of people represented in the installation.


Trevor: Trevor wanted to create a film based around TAP and YEA. He was already an experienced filmmaker and needed absolutely no direction. It was wonderful to watch him engage with volunteers and community members, interviewing them for the film. At the YEA event, he teamed up with another young videographer and captured the whole night on film.


Gina: Gina was the only youth who consistently came to performance committee meetings. Indeed, sometimes she, alone was the committee. Every meeting, we faced challenges that led to us potentially cancelling the show. Her optimism and energy, and willingness to move forward is what allowed for 6 performances from bands, poets, and dancers.  She took on the role of co-stage manager and helped lead a team of youth volunteer as MC and stage crew.



Future of YEA:


I don’t know what YEA will look like in the future, but I know it will continue to be from the hearts and minds of many. Kitsilano Neighbourhood House has successfully received a grant from the Youth Philanthropy Council to continue YEA as a regular program. The new coordinators, Sebastian Wen and Jess Tollestrup are two young and wickedly talented artists that will work towards activating a web of young artists along the Westside. My vision for YEA is not a set idea but a process. I hope to see a space created at Kits House where a diverse group of youth can come together with local artists, create projects, share ideas and explore interests. My gut feeling is that YEA may look like an event from time to time, but will ultimately be a shelter, an incubator, and a stronghold for that feeling of possibility that started it all.


            My next project is organizing and archiving the history of Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House as I did for Kit’s House years ago. I am looking forward to sifting through papers, reading stories, finding mysteries and letting a new prospect unfold.


The program has received a grant from the Vancouver Foundation to continue to be recreated by west side youth. Come participate as a youth or volunteer!




Film created by official YEA videographer, Trevor Leong: