Setting the Stage: The All Stars Project in SF
Performing onstage is just the beginning of many successful roles for the young urban clients of the All Stars Project Inc., whose Bay Area program received the 2008 Jerry Garcia Award from the Rex Foundation
By Mary Eisenhart
For many kids, access to a good education offers a path to a successful, happy life. For many others, cultural or economic issues leave them unable to take advantage of this resource. In theory, public education gives all young people the same opportunities for success, the same tools to achieve their goals. In practice, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
While disparity in school funding is much cited as an explanation, the All Stars Project of the San Francisco Bay Area, recipient of the Rex Foundation’s Jerry Garcia Award in 2008, frames the issue differently: Nothing in the experience of many economically disadvantaged young people has given them the skills and cultural background they need to learn at school, and a solution requires getting out of the school setting.
In 1981, social activists Dr. Lenora Fulani and Dr. Fred Newman, working in New York’s inner-city neighborhoods, came to the conclusion that they’d have to think outside the educational-establishment box to help their young clients. With too much time on their hands and too few options for positive activities, the kids approached Fulani and Newman for something to do. The idea of putting on a show, telling their own stories, was an instant hit; since then, the All Stars Project, launched with neighborhood talent shows in South Bronx church basements, has used the performing arts as a way for youth to create projects that matter to them–and in the process acquire the skills and attitudes to build their own success.
The volunteer-driven organization is privately funded by a network of individual donors, foundations and corporate giving. “Without the restrictions that can come with government funding, we’re able to work with all young people — not just the most ‘talented’ or those most ‘at risk,'” explains the Project’s Bay Area Youth Programs Manager, Dr. Elouise Joseph. “Our independent funding also fosters an environment that actively involves youth, donors and volunteers in continuously developing our programs and in creating new programs and experiences.”
The process of putting on a show serves as an introduction and catalyst, exposing young people to different cultures and different sets of assumptions. It shows them possibilities they’d never considered, and offers them the tools to make those possibilities real in their own lives.
After nearly three decades, All Stars operates programs in New York, Newark, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and has inspired local programs in the U.S., Europe and Africa. “The All Stars Project has created outside-of-school supplementary education programs that provide inner-city youth with the kinds of experiences and environments that help reignite their development,” Joseph says. “Once they begin developing, young people are motivated to become learners.”
The Jerry Garcia Award helped the Bay Area All Stars expand their program from Oakland to San Francisco, to launch the All Stars Talent Show Network and the Development School for Youth. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Joseph and learn more about these programs.
Rex Foundation: Why use onstage performance as a way to engage young people? What do they learn and how do they benefit as a result? How does the All Stars approach differ from other programs that use the creative arts to engage youth?
Dr. Elouise Joseph, All Stars Project of the San Francisco Bay Area: The All Stars community brings together people who might otherwise never meet, in support of the development of all youth, especially young people living in poverty.
The All Stars approach, created through what’s now 30 years of successful efforts in poor urban communities, is based on the premise that the much debated “achievement gap” needs to be reframed as a “development gap” in order to be effectively addressed. Development is the ability of people, young and old, to make life choices that enable them to grow. It is connected to creativity and the capacity of human beings to shape, rather than simply react to, their circumstances.
Most poor, urban youth have few life experiences similar to those experienced by middle-class children and youth that allow them to grow, make life choices and shape their circumstances. These young people do not simply fail to learn, they fail to learn how to learn. This development gap leaves many of them without the skills necessary to learn in school settings.
In order to address this problem, the All Stars has created outside-of-school supplementary education programs that provide inner-city youth with the kinds of experiences and environments that help reignite their development. Once they begin developing, young people are motivated to become learners.
Participating in the All Stars places significant demands on young people–coming on time, dressing appropriately, being active, trying new things, being part of an ensemble, building relationships with people who are different from them. The youth have to constantly be willing to go outside their comfort zones. Learning to use their love of performance and ability to grow as performers makes that possible.
Rex: Who are the young people the Bay Area All Stars Project serves, and how is it aimed at their particular needs and issues?
All Stars: The All Stars works with youth from some of the toughest neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our programs are designed to address and reverse the ways that poverty stunts their development and limits their life choices. I grew up poor in rural Louisiana with 11 brothers and sisters–in the segregated South. I know something about the impact of poverty on one’s development, and the All Stars has the best approach I’ve ever found to creating environments for young people to grow.
We began in the Bay Area with the All Stars Talent Show Network in Oakland in 2002. The ASTSN involves children and youth (ages 5 to 25) as producers and performers in neighborhood talent shows. Through their participation, the young people develop by expanding their capacities in something they love to do.
That’s when I came on board as an All Stars (volunteer) community organizer. I had been a donor to All Stars programs in New York City; I’m now the Youth Programs Manager in the Bay Area. (My other full-time job and related passion is as a pediatrician!) I organized a team of other volunteers to do community outreach and produce events in East and West Oakland. We involved hundreds of Oakland and other Bay Area youth.
In 2008, with the encouragement and support of lead donors, we were able to bring the ASTN to San Francisco youth. I’m proud to say that the young people from Oakland now volunteer with me as trainers and mentors for the San Francisco youth, teaching them how to do outreach, host events and run the production of the shows. Auditions and workshops have been held in Bayview, Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, Sunnydale, the Richmond and the Mission. These efforts have brought young people from the African American, Latino and Asian communities to create together–often the very first time that young people from these diverse communities have worked together–and for many, the first time they have experienced success.
In November, 2009, we graduated 12 young people from the Bay Area’s inaugural class of the Development School for Youth (DSY). The young people were recruited through presentations I made at schools, churches, youth centers and other organizations. The DSY partners with business professionals and high-school age youth in a 10-week cycle of after-school workshops and paid summer internships, in which the young people experience, explore, develop and practice being a “cosmopolitan”–someone who, as a result of having expanded access to the world, has multiple and layered identities, and sees oneself as an active creator of one’s life.
The students attend a cycle of workshops by leading corporate executives and professionals, during which the young people learn how to perform in a corporate environment. In addition to being introduced to subjects such as investment banking and marketing, students are taught how to write a resume, speak in public and dress professionally. Each student participates in one or more mock job interviews conducted by successful corporate professionals who support the program.
All of these experiences help the young people learn how to take responsibility for creating their own learning and to perform successfully in a corporate setting that is foreign to them. Our 12 DSY graduates will be placed in six-to eight-week full-time paid summer internships in corporate locations this summer. The internship will be the culmination of the program and will give young people the opportunity to use and continue to develop their leadership and professional skills. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an honored DSY partner, “There are causes that motivate me, that keep me excited about being a judge and about being a human being. The Development School for Youth is one of those programs.”
Rex: How do these productions come together, and who’s the audience?
All Stars: The audience is the community the youth are now part of–their family and friends, as well as All Stars volunteers and donors, and their family and friends.
All Stars kids often come to ASTN auditions, workshops or shows feeling angry or upset about a fight they just had with a friend or family member, or frightened and distraught that a person close to them was murdered. They may be embarrassed that they don’t have the best pair of shoes. At the All Stars they come to see that they will be accepted with all of who they are.
They are also challenged and given the opportunity to learn that however they are feeling, they have something to give to the other kids, to their families and friends in the audience, to the All Stars volunteers and to themselves. There’s no booing at the All Stars. Acts are disqualified if they do–and are welcomed back at the next audition to try again.
They bring poems about their lives to the performance workshops that follow the All Stars audition. With the help of directors, the youth create an ensemble performance out of the pains, joys, humor their poems expressed. They are applauded and congratulated, and they experience creating a friendly, fun and creative environment with people they don’t know. They experience giving who they are and the circumstances of their lives–and, as part of an ensemble that they helped build, becoming someone who can make new choices wherever they happen to be: at home, at church, at school, in a professional setting and on the street. They learn that they can create stages from which they can perform their lives, and in the process, their development.
Rex: How long does a typical participant stay involved with the program? Do you follow what happens to your alumni after they move on?
All Stars: We invite alumni to participate as volunteers, and in new All Star programs and ongoing events. Many alums often follow what’s happening at the All Stars and stay in touch with us and each other about how they are doing in their lives.
Rex: How are the Development Workshops a natural outgrowth of the performance-oriented programs, and what percentage of the young people you serve participate? How have they benefited, particularly in terms of seeing new possibilities for their own lives and defining their own goals?
All Stars: The weekly workshops of the Development School for Youth allow 16-21 year olds another opportunity to perform–in this instance, as a professional. We use the same developmental tools that are used in the Talent Show Network; by “performing” conversations with senior executives, they learn to see the corporate setting as another stage, another place where they can be.
Rex: Your parent organization’s site prominently features a document containing this passage:
Not surprisingly, in light of the politicization of the “achievement gap” issue mentioned earlier, the approach created by the All Stars, like the All Stars itself, has been largely marginalized by public policy institutions. It does not “fit” within the matrix of the current power struggle, in which institutional players battle each other for control of the school system, its budgets and its extraordinary influence within–and over–poor communities. The All Stars’ controversiality is heightened because it does not subscribe to the liberal proposition that says, in effect, there is no development problem for minority youth and that all we need to do is spend more money in the classrooms of poor communities.
Nevertheless, the All Stars and its approach have been embraced by a vibrant independent community of wealthy business executives and philanthropists, educators, community leaders, law enforcement professionals (including New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly), theatre artists and the young people themselves. Mayor Bloomberg, who accepts standardized notions of the achievement gap, has nonetheless been an advocate for the program, twice helping it to secure an IDA triple tax-free bond to purchase and then renovate its 30,000 square foot development center on West 42nd Street. Bloomberg has received ample criticism for that support from political forces invested in maintaining the educational status quo. This political conglomerate of critics believes that the achievement gap can only be addressed from within the school system and through its political allies, including the teachers union, the City Council and the Democratic Party.
What should our readers know about your work in the context of these issues?
All Stars: All Stars Project is a nonpartisan, nonreligious organization. People from across the political spectrum “check our politics at the door.” Developing new and effective approaches to the failure of so many of our children to learn, and to the other devastating effects of chronic poverty, cannot be created in a partisan environment or by the partisan political process.
Rex: What would you like more people to know about why the All Stars Project is so important to youth and the community at large?
All Stars: I reach out to youth in every possible setting, after school, in recreation/community centers, Boys/Girls clubs, the Y, churches and other after school programs; and I invite them to participate in the All Stars programs. I relate to them all as having the capacity to perform their lives in new and more creative ways–in school, at home, on the street, at church and out in the broader community and world. We play and improvise; and in the process, we learn and grow together.
We meet with business leaders and other caring professionals and invite them to be involved, become an All Star. I’m inspired by their stepping up for and with inner city youth. The All Stars is a great community of diverse people who care about young people, and everyone has the opportunity to grow and develop by participating in All Stars programs. Everyone has something to give.
Rex: What activities are coming up at the All Stars this year?
All Stars: We’re producing three talent show cycles this year. Our first one is taking place in Visitacion Valley, with auditions at the Boys & Girls Club on February 27and March 20, and the talent show at El Dorado Elementary School on April 10.Â Readers can learn more about all of our upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, and learn how to donate by visiting our Web site at www.allstars.org.