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Youth Arts for Change aims to use the arts as a catalyst to open doors for youth, promoting positive change, and forging constructive connections

Lisa Smith, program coordinator for Clackamas County Arts Alliance's Youth Arts for Change, wishes she could reach every youth in the county with her programs. Since that isn't possible, she urges people to support the arts in their schools and in the community.

PHOTO BY LISA SMITH - Guest artist Ryan Alexander Tanner works with a youth during last year's Artistic Minds program at Parrott Creek Ranch."Buy a sketch pad for a kid interested in drawing, take a youth to a concert — do anything that exposes kids to creativity," Smith said.

"The goal of Youth Arts for Change is to use the arts as a catalyst to open doors for youth, promoting positive change, and forging constructive connections between youth and their community," she said.

Smith supervises four major programs. The first, Youth Theatre for Change, took place at Clackamas Community College in August. For six weeks, the teens worked with two professionals, Kirk Mouser, executive artistic director for Portland-based Stumptown Stages, and playwright Jenni Green Miller.

The workshop culminated with a one-night-only performance of a play based on the experiences of the high-school-age students.

"It's a visceral experience" when the audience stands up and applauds at the end of the performance, Smith said.

Two new projects started on Sept. 19: Artistic Minds, sited at Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City; and the Estacada Middle School project, in

partnership with Todos Juntos.

The fourth program, Interview Project, will begin in early 2018 at Baker Prairie Middle School in Canby.

Artistic Minds

This program, which first began in 2012, is a partnership between Youth Arts for Change and Parrott Creek Family and Child Services, which helps identify strengths and develop skills that build stronger families and safer communities.

The 10-week Artistic Minds program brings a professional visual artist to Parrott Creek Ranch, a long-term residential treatment program for adolescent boys to help them develop life skills, accountability and personal discipline so they can become contributing members of society.

"The idea is to introduce youth to the arts to help them harness some of that creative energy and share their own experiences," Smith said.

Above all, the program is responsive to what the youth are interested in.

This is Ryan Alexander Tanner's third year as the guest artist for this program.

"He is an illustrator in Portland, an amazing artist, and a fantastic person and instructor," Smith said. "He talks to [the young men] about their interests and then takes an individual approach for each of them."

The project also includes a field trip to Pacific Northwest College of Art, where Tanner is an instructor.

"They see the facility, and this gives them a glimpse into the real-world applications [of art]. They see all the different ways to be creative," Smith said.

All Youth Arts for Change programs culminate in a final activity.

For this program, Oregon City resident Annie Howden, of Annie's Hangups, donates her time and professionally mats all the boys' work, Smith said.

Then the art is displayed in a special exhibit at the ranch. The event is closed to the public, but family and staff are invited, along with county dignitaries.

The exhibit shows "the boys how far they have come. They see how much they have accomplished," Smith said.

Estacada and Canby programs

The Estacada program is a 10-week, voluntary after-school project in partnership with Todos Juntos, an organization that partners with schools, local law enforcement, county agencies, United Way and others to enhance local resources and services for youth and families.

This project uses photography to explore the students' identity, Smith said. It will be taught by photographer Leigh Rooney.

A Todos Juntos staff member will handle classroom management, so that the teaching artist can focus on instruction. The program will culminate in an exhibit of the students' work.

The Interview Project, which has been in place since 2014, will take place early in the new year at Canby's Baker Prairie Middle School.

A professional artist will teach interview skills and then guide the students through an art project, which will highlight "the intersection of the visual and narrative," Smith said.

Last year students made books that were displayed as a big mural for the final exhibit.

"The chance to share their work is so important. The youth will never forget that moment when someone says, 'Wow, that's great.'"

Smith also noted that when the programs end, participants are presented with an acknowledgment of their work.

"Sometimes we give them sketch books or drawing instruments. It seems small, but it's not. It's a way to say, 'You did a good job, keep up the good work,'" she said.


People ask Smith how she knows she is making a difference, and she cites a number of examples.

There are two major advantages for participants that are unique to the Youth Theatre for Change project, she said.

Participants can apply for an internship with Mouser at Stumptown Stages, and they can opt to take a free theater course at Clackamas Community College, earning four free college credits.

As for all the other programs, Smith said participants are exposed to creativity in different forms, which may show students that they have skills they didn't know they had.

"Making new friends is another huge part of this. The kids get to hang out with people they never thought they'd meet in a fun, after-school environment," she said.

As part of the final exhibit of their work, students "have the opportunity to authentically express themselves, share their challenges and frustrations, and the community gets to hear them."


"Kids have a different set of challenges now that we didn't have," Smith said.

Sometimes adults don't understand what is going on in the lives of young people, and they need to stop and listen and make sure to connect with them, as the youth will be the community in the future, she added.

Smith began working with Youth Arts for Change in 2015 and said she has learned to be a better listener and a better person through working with the program.

The Clackamas Arts Alliance is a nonprofit, funded by donations and grants.

Those interested in supporting the organization should visit the website and check out the programs offered, Smith said.

Support the arts

Contact: Email Lisa Smith, Clackamas County's Youth Arts for Change program coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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