On December 1, my graduate students and I brought our youth partners from the Refugee Youth Project to campus for what turned out to be a pretty amazing day and a wonderful culmination to our second fall residency at Patterson High School in southeast Baltimore for the YAAAS! Project.

A Partnership with Refugee Youth

Youth Artists and Allies taking Action in Society (YAAAS!), is an emerging idea investment of BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore and the central focus of a graduate service-learning course offered through Towson University’s M.A. program in Interdisciplinary Arts Infusion (MAIAI), for which I am the director. The seven enrolled graduate students for the course were largely teachers or teaching artists invested in learning how to use collaborative artmaking practices to better support refugee students and English Language Learners. Our 14 youth participants (partners) were Patterson High School students, 16 to 19 years of age. They and their families are refugees from countries such as Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

In short, this means our youth partners are resilient young people who have been through a great deal and now that they have been given the opportunity to resettle here in Baltimore with their families, they are starting life anew.

Related: TU graduate students use ‘YAAAS!’ to explore perceptions of refugee youth with BTU help.

Most of our youth partners speak two or three languages if not more, English being the newest. Some students were able to stay in school all along, some had highly interrupted schooling while moving from one refugee camp to another, and some never attended school at all until arriving in the U.S., which means all have unique learning backgrounds and needs.

An Innovative, Collaborative Arts Learning Lab

YAAAS! utilizes the innovative educational model for an arts learning laboratory first developed in fall 2017 to engage and support refugee youth as they learn English and adapt to the U.S. The model involves extended arts enrichment programming involving side-by-side arts collaboration between the MAIAI students and our Patterson High School partners. The close teacher-student contact supported through the project design expands the intercultural competency, critical thinking, civic engagement, and arts integration skills of teachers for whom little training is typically offered for supporting the growing number of second language learners entering public schools. At the same time, the curriculum is designed to work against the isolation so commonly felt by refugee and immigrant students, with intensive one-to-one and small group exchanges that support language learning and social adjustment. In this model, collaborative arts become a powerful vehicle for all to engage in experiential activities that involve creative risk-taking, problem-solving, stumbling, failing, communicating, and expressing ourselves—together.

refugee youth partnership

Click the image to see more photos from the final reception at Towson University Center for the Arts.

Collaborative arts strategies embraced throughout each day of the project invited extensive stories, sharing, and dialogue as a means to provide teachers a far more complex understanding of their young partners than is typically allowed in an average classroom of 30 students. Ultimately, this also allowed for the refugee partners to be seen with complexity and nuance, where their cultures and languages were embraced as assets and not deficits. Our small teacher to student ratios also allowed pairs and small groups to move at different rates to account for different levels of language acquisition.

A great deal of our focus throughout our evening sessions at Patterson is on the process of making art and the learning that happens all along the way, but we were proud to have also created a lovely, layered tapestry of 96 collaged paper tiles. We used both images and text to explore and share the complex identities of all of our group members, both youth and grad students—where we come from, who we are, and what we dream of for the future. We displayed our work in the second floor atrium of the Center for the Arts starting on December 1, when we had a wonderful, intimate opening event, which provided our young partners the opportunity to proudly share their work with others. If you missed seeing our art exhibit, don’t worry, this treasured partnership will continue.

We are deeply grateful for the support from BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore that made this powerful partnership happen.