The public programs and teen arts council coordinator on meeting young people where they are
Like the rest of us, young people have had their worlds turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools shuttered and events cancelled, teenagers especially have found themselves suddenly without many traditional outlets to meaningfully connect with their peers. That's why the members of the Oklahoma Contemporary Teen Arts Council have been keeping those connections sharp through weekly web meetings in which they share ideas and artwork, working together to tackle big ideas in the world of art and beyond.
"This is the first year, so everything we've done has been unprecedented anyway," said Oklahoma Contemporary Public Programs and Teen Arts Council Coordinator Blair Summers. "With the quarantine, it's just maybe even more unconventional."
Part of that unconventional approach has meant regular collaboration over video conference calls, taking the Council's mission to help teens build their own creative community and foster personal growth into the virtual space. "We still have our same meeting time every Thursday, but we do it over Zoom," Summers said. "A lot of it right now is just about giving them the chance to see each other and talk to each other. So even if we're not in the middle of a really pertinent project, it's about giving them time and space to reconnect."
With the deadline for this year's OCTAC application approaching on July 3, we sat down with Summers to talk about how her inaugural cohort has been meeting the challenge of this moment, along with her thoughts on the value of working with young people and honoring the power of their voices.
The Teen Arts Council has wrapped up its first year during a pretty tumultuous moment. What can you say about that, and about the experience overall?
It's been incredible. Obviously COVID-19 threw us a curveball, but we've been adapting. For example, last week I sent the teens a couple TED Talks: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and one by Clint Smith on how to raise a Black son in America, along with some other resources for us to work through together virtually. So we'll assign content like that and chat about it. I try not to make it homework, but it's something for them to help stay engaged.
We've also been doing themes of the week, encouraging them to submit any kind of content on the topic. One of our earlier themes was nature, so people would send me photographs, drawings, pressed flowers, poetry. We also started a Tumblr page that has a lot of their artwork on there. It's sort of a way for them to also feel like all their projects and "doodles" and things can actually go towards something and be used as a resource for future teens.
We've also been spending a lot of time just talking through what's going on in the world right now: from recent protests and conversations about race, to COVID-19 and more. I think some people don't know how to approach teenagers, or they think maybe their opinions aren't fully formed because they're not a "real adult," or they talk to them like they're children. But these young people are incredibly astute and articulate, and they pay more attention to what's going on than most adults I know. They're ready to talk about those things more so than most people I interact with on a day-to-day basis.
Has there been a particular project you've loved working on this year?
I think one of my favorite projects was working on the Teen Arts Council poster. It was an Exquisite Corpse activity, where everyone worked together in teams to collaborate on drawing this creature to represent the OCTAC. I think that's my favorite because it we were working together on a specific shared goal, some kind of design to later be used for a recruitment poster.
That activity was really an emblem of what the Teen Arts Council is all about: It's weird. It's spontaneous. You can really put whatever you want on there. It was really rewarding to watch them work together in groups of three to try to draw these creatures, or use photo collage on them. After everyone finished, we pinned them all up on the wall and voted — just like a design process. We agreed on some that we liked, and then I did some mock-ups and we voted again. The process and the end product was pretty representative, I think, of what the Teen Arts Council is really for.
What advice would you give a teenager who's interested in joining, but might not feel confident enough to take the plunge?
For teens who are maybe interested, but somehow don't think they're "good enough," I would tell them this isn't a talent competition. It's not a contest. And all are welcome. You could be a STEM kid who's into math, or maybe you're into woodworking. You don't have to have an artistic background. You don't have to have any particular skill set. You need to be interested in contemporary art and ideas. You need to be interested in collaborating and working on projects. That could be for the civic-minded person who wants to do more community engagement and activism. That's great! It could be for someone who really does have amazing graphic arts skills or something.
The Teen Arts Council is for everybody. One of the teens recently sent a piece of writing for this little book I'm going to make, and it's basically talking about how she is painfully shy, how it's really hard for her to talk even to her family. She said she almost didn't even apply because she was just too nervous. But when she came in and talked with us, she realized she got the place. She said it has completely changed her perspective. She knows she wants to work on public speaking and this has been the best thing for her.
We meet you wherever you are. You are welcome into our family, no matter what. If you're into contemporary art and you want to hang out with some diverse teens and meet some new people and have new opportunities and make a difference in the community, then the Teen Arts Council is for you.
Applications are currently open for paid positions on the Oklahoma Contemporary Teen Arts Council. OCTAC members spend an academic year planning, designing and facilitating ways to connect teens with Oklahoma Contemporary through gallery experiences, programs, print pieces, events and project generation. Rising sophomores through seniors are encouraged to learn more and apply here.
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