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Transforming Trauma Into Art: How Arts Education Is Changing Lives in NYC Public Schools

A teacher/playwright/performer shares her story of bringing arts education to communities in need.

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Now three years later, we are still alive, and I’ve also finished a script that is a viable performance piece for an audience. The stories in Yo Miss take the audience through my journey of teaching in multiple schools, with boys in jail, with kids who have survived and continue to survive very challenging lives. I knew from the outset that I wanted to share the stories of some of the girls I work with. These girls want a higher education; they want to thrive, to explore their own desires, dreams and to write their stories. But many of them are in families or in situations where the circumstances or the traditions are holding them back. 

One girl in particular stood out for me. She was a very powerful performer in our youth theater, and throughout my three years of working with her, she revealed her struggles with her family. She was afraid that she would be forced into a marriage, and feared leaving her family. This was a very difficult story for her to tell, and to present to an audience. In putting together Yo Miss, I decided to tell her story alongside a story of my own grandmother and the lack of choices that she had, to compare the ways she was trapped in her history to the ways this young girl was trapped in her family situation. In this particular case, the girl I was helping was used as chattel in her family and she was reaching out for help. She told me she had no choice but to accept being sold. Those were her words not mine. My choice to make these connections between us is, of course, complicated. But in the end I am hoping that audiences will understand that while we can’t judge other people until we walk in their shoes, we also don’t have to be bystanders in a world that exploits young people, women and girls. 

And that is one of the purposes of Yo Miss: to show how we are living in a collision of cultures, to show that the teachers are also students of life. In the play there are three musicians on stage who end up helping me, the teacher, move through the stories within a musical framework, which is something I learned in collaboration with my young friends in the hip hop world. We are learning from each other, which is the way education really ought to be.


Judith Sloan is an actor, writer, audio artist, and educator. She is co-author of Crossing the BLVD , creator of Yo Miss, and librettist for a new symphony, 1001 Voices. She is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and co-founder of EarSay.

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