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

When I listen to politicians like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich talk about immigrants, I end up making sick jokes as a survival tool. According to their proposed policies, most of the people I work with would be offered a "trampoline to self-deportation." I am the founder and director of a non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated. I work with new immigrants and refugees, mostly teenagers and college students and young people. The future of America and the future of the world.

As part of this organization, called EarSay, in 2001 I founded an educational project in partnership with the International High School at LaGuardia Community College to provide healing through artistic expression to teenagers who have recently migrated to the United States. We offer young people who are new to the language, culture and cultural references in this country additional tools to express the truth of their lives. That we should be providing arts education from “outside” the school does not make us unique: as arts funding and teaching positions in the arts were cut in the 1980s and 1990s, many small and large non-profits began to take up the slack and provide arts training in public schools where there otherwise would be none. Out of that need, a new breed of artists began to emerge throughout the country – “teaching artists,” who are artists who teach and artists who make art. We are not members of the full-time teaching faculty, but have the ability to complement curriculum in programs that are truly collaborative within a school. 

While there is a somewhat sinister financial aspect to all this (i.e., the school system does not have to pay us full-time salaries and health benefits), it also means that students and teachers have access to professional artists, as artists have filled a void in a nation that continues to devalue both art and art making while privileging celebrity culture and fame. 

What happens to a society when young people are not given the opportunity to experience a range of cultural and artistic endeavors? There are numerous studies showing that audiences for the live performing arts are eroding; as those audiences erode so too does the understanding of the practice of art-making, whether that is in music, theater, dance or the visual and media arts. My colleague at NYU, Michael Dinwiddie, often talks about how during the Reagan era, public funding for public schools was cut, musical instruments were not provided, and kids did what kids know how to do anyway: be creative with whatever is at hand. They followed in the footsteps of the birth of hip hop and began rapping and making beats, while poetry slams created the ground for poetry to re-emerge as a "cool" art form for youth self-expression. You don’t need a lot of money to stand up with yourself and a piece of paper, or to bang out beats on a table: people will create no matter what. 

But it’s not enough for young people to make art out of nothing. When young people don’t have access to musical instruments, performance and visual arts training, or when funding for school trips to museums, concerts or plays is cut, we no longer have a growing educated audience for art and fertile ground for art-makers. For young people, especially teenagers who have already been through tremendous displacement, the process of creating, going through frustrations, problem solving and completion is not simply a matter of hard work. There is a need for guidance and training.  

One of the real measures we have been able to track with teenagers who have participated in our theater workshops is their ability to tackle challenges and make choices for their futures – whether those challenges include choices about colleges, professional careers or how to handle stress. The combination of storytelling and theater training gives students tools to make connections between cultures, shed light on the complexity and humanity of each individual, and deepen what it means or could mean to be part of a global community, while also allowing them to explore their own cultural identity and stories of migration and displacement. Our program gives teenagers an opportunity to increase their confidence, attention levels and focus in ways that more traditional/hierarchical environments often cannot. 

This is the kind of guidance and training I had as a teenager and the kind of guidance and training I try to provide to the teenagers in EarSay’s programs. Whether I’m teaching displaced students, or young boys who are in and out of youth detention centers and already feel like failures, I know my job is to teach whatever I can in the moment – and yes, sometimes that means teaching something that simply allows young people to problem-solve. 

Here is an excerpt from a performance/poem that is part of a theater piece I wrote called Yo Miss, which draws directly from my experiences teaching in a youth detention center. 

(boys) Yo, Miss, what good is this going to do us when we get out?

(Judith) Sticking with something until you finish -- it's about not giving up.

(boys) But what good is this going to do us?

(Judith) Problem solving -- that's what we're doing.

(boys) But what good is this when we get out?

(Judith) Who knows, some of you may end up being writers.

(boys)Yo Miss, that's bullshit. What good is this going to do us?

(Judith) Finally I say, “I don't know, you’re in jail, you have anything better to do right now?”Then I say, “You never know, maybe you'll discover something that can keep you sane.”

Sometimes, all we have to go on is faith that learning and relearning and hard training will pay off, maybe in ways we didn’t anticipate.


It is with that ethic in mind that I continue directing a project that includes professional theatrical and writing workshops for students who are recent arrivals to this country, whose English proficiency is limited, and who have little or no access to artistic expression. I direct and help sustain the workshops, hiring artists to co-teach acting and writing, which eventually turn into theatrical performances and audio/radio stories. The teenagers I work with come from over 50 different countries. All of the students are new English learners, all have been displaced – many from conflict-zones, war-zones or places where there have been natural disasters – and they landed in Queens. Sometimes kids come to the U.S. with their parents; many come without their parents, but perhaps with an extended family member who they don’t know that well. Sometimes they are coming to the U.S. to meet a father or mother for the first time in 10 or 12 years. 

The kids I work with are disenfranchised in many ways, but they are not heartbroken and they have incredible resilience. In 2008-2009, there were 465,000 undocumented students enrolled in 9th to 12th grade in the United States; 36,000 of those undocumented students were enrolled in 9th to 12th grade in New York State, according to the Urban Institute. Not all of my students are undocumented, but a good portion of them are. For undocumented students who are negotiating their futures, current immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment can be overwhelmingly frightening; there is a tremendous need among them to write and speak about these issues. Providing them with an opportunity to do this in a professional theatrical context allows for the pain and joy and love they experience –indeed, the full range of their emotional lives – to be released from the prisons in which they have been kept. 

Our project allows for a kind of time and attention to this process that it is sometimes impossible for the system of a school to achieve with individual kids. In one instance, EarSay created a radio and audio story project in collaboration with a humanities teacher and an English teacher. We helped students craft poems and stories about cultural identity and contemporary topics ranging from the rise in the popularity of basketball throughout the world, to memories of food, to concerns about sleeping. As part of that process I, along with several other teaching artists, spend several hours one-on-one with teenagers, helping them craft their stories. 

Karina, a 10th grader, worked on a story about trying to get better sleep and we were going to record it. Out of curiosity I asked Karina why she was so obsessed with better sleep and why she couldn’t sleep. She told me she works full-time, and that she’s older than other kids in the 10th grade -- she was 18 years old. I told her not to feel embarrassed about being 18 and in the 10th grade, and shared with her that I lived through two deaths and a fire by the time I was 15, and that once I got out of high school I had to figure out how to live a life that I could both afford and strive for. I told her about how I became a hairdresser, then worked in theater for many years, then moved to NYC when I was 30 and went to college when I was a lot older than other people who went to college straight out of high school, and eventually got my masters degree. 

I told her all that so she wouldn’t feel embarrassed about being 18 and in the 10th grade. And then she told me more of her story. She works full-time on a night shift waitressing and takes care of a 6-year-old baby sister. She gets out of school at 3:30pm, helps her sister with her homework, tries to take a nap from 6pm to 9pm, goes to work at 10pm, gets out at 4:30am, goes home, tries to take a nap, gets up at 6:30, takes her sister to school, and then gets on the train so she can get to her own school by 8am. Then she starts her day again. No one in the school knew she had this kind of schedule until Karina presented her story in a final presentation. I spoke to the counselors at the school, her teacher and others, and suggested we find out more about her situation to see how we could help her. As it turns out, her story is even more complicated than she initially revealed, and in collaboration with a filmmaker and photographer who works with EarSay, we are now creating a documentary about her story. 

This is where our project has a kind of value that goes beyond the professional theater training, the performances, and the joyful and heartfelt stories performed by kids – when we are able to create projects that connect the stories and the young people in ways that can change their lives profoundly. 


After eight years of great success with this program, the “recession of 2008/2009” took its toll in the following way: in late December of 2008, I got a phone call from a state agency where we apply for grants. “Hello Judith,” a voice on the other end said. “I wanted to let you know that your proposal for EarSay’s youth program sailed through the panel and was at the top of the list. Unfortunately there is no money to support you.” Three weeks later I got three more phone calls with basically the same gist. This was right after financial bailouts of AIG and other mega financial disasters, the subprime market mortgage defaults and the Maddoff scam; everything was looking bad. 

What do independently driven entrepreneurial people do in a crisis like this? I took a look at what we had: 

  • An incredible partnership with dedicated teachers, administrators, kids and the managing director at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center who agreed to give us free space for the theatre project with the high school kids. 
  • Longevity: what I’m going to call “tree-root” organizing; unlike grassroots, it is more difficult to knock us down with a storm -- it takes a really, really big storm to destroy our partnerships.
  • Ideas: brains, insight and I was starting to develop a theatre show with a purpose: to bring attention to and show the depth of the complexity of my work with vulnerable youth. I’d managed to win some “space grants,” which gave me free theater space for rehearsals and technical support to develop a work-in-progress performance. Meanwhile, a feature article in the New York Times helped propel the work forward.  

This financial crisis was, of course, not limited to my own particular situation. It was felt throughout the artistic community, in the social services, across the city, state and country. Small arts groups that are embedded in specific communities were hit very hard and I knew of several organizations that simply folded as a result. 

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.

#story_page_ below_article

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.