In December 2019, we wrapped up our third consecutive fall semester of the YAAAS project, and our fist semester as a priority investment of BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore. Youth Artists and Allies Taking Action in Society is the project of a graduate service-learning course offered through the M.A. program in Interdisciplinary Arts Infusion at Towson University taught by me, the graduate director. This dynamic project allows enrolled graduate students, largely working teachers and teaching artists, to work alongside refugee youth at Patterson High School, our partnering school in Baltimore. It’s been a powerful opportunity to examine collaborative art making as a vehicle for reciprocal learning. For the high school student refugees, making art of all kinds alongside teachers in small groups and pairs offers them lots of support for learning English as well as social adjustment. We also work intentionally to expand their knowledge of higher education. Very importantly, for a group that can often struggle with extreme social isolation, our evening arts enrichment program offers a safe space for students to be among friends and supportive mentors outside the structured school day.

At the same time, the graduate student participants enjoy a rich hands-on experience working collaboratively with these young learners, where they come to better understand the role that art making can play in supporting transformative learning. By working side by side, these educators gain a critical window into students’ lives, concerns, and questions and build relationships that can’t always happen in traditional classrooms. Grad students also gain valuable insight on trauma-informed and culturally sustaining practices, while dramatically expanding their own global competency. This is particularly critical given that so many Maryland counties and schools are experiencing an influx of immigrant and refugee students and too many teachers are under-prepared to support these learners in their classrooms. Playfulness, creative risk-taking, experimentation, storytelling, and artistic collaboration are at the heart of our eight-week residencies. As you look through our photo documentation you will see all of these qualities in action.

Related story: Valuing both the processes and products of creative partnerships with refugee youth

In fact, for the three years of the YAAAS project so far, photo documentation of our entire process has been critical, but this year it became even more so during the shut downs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing photos became a vital way to celebrate and send love to our twelve graduating high school partners during a very difficult time.

To appreciate our efforts, one needs a bit of backstory.

Addressing critical learning needs of refugee students

YAAAS is an innovative course that attempts to explore the ways in which the relational aspects of socially engaged arts can address the critical learning needs of refugee students and English learners, more generally. Embracing socially engaged arts practices means that, more than focusing on a final product, we focus on the time spent making art together and the relationships cultivated in the process. Through various arts practices, we invite and prioritize creative risk-taking, vulnerability, and play in an attempt foster authentic connection. This means that photos that capture facial expressions and body language are invaluable for the formative assessment of our work. Furthermore, as we’ve sought to grow the project over time and bring in new members, partners, and funders, photos help convey a much fuller story.

More and more since the first year, we have come to appreciate how important the photo documentation is for our young partners. One of their favorite moments is often the surprise of the compilation slideshow we offer at our culminating events on the Towson University campus. Each year, it becomes a beautiful way to look back on all we did and remember how much we achieved, how much we laughed, and how many friendships blossomed, while inviting others to bear witness to our accomplishments. Recognizing the importance of this led us to begin gifting printed copies of photos at each closing session.

Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.

—Paolo Freire, Brazilian education scholar and theorist

This past spring 2020 however, brought out even more reasons to be grateful for these photos, as they allowed us to creatively celebrate the twelve high school students from our group who graduated with comparatively little fanfare since the COVID-19 school closings prevented any in-person graduation ceremonies from happening. There was no chance to wear their flowing blue and white caps and gowns with all of their friends, no crossing the stage for their diploma while friends and family watched and cheered. No group photos with balloons and flowers and glowing faces after all was said and done. Of course, this was true for millions of young people in the U.S. and beyond. While we were not in the position to ameliorate that for millions of graduating students, for our group of twelve young partners, I knew we needed to do something meaningful to celebrate them from a distance.

According to the U.N., there are currently 70.8 million displaced people in the world and 30 million of them are refugees. To gain refugee status and resettle in the United States is a tremendous and rare feat that only a tiny fraction of displaced people across the globe ever get to experience. To come this far after escaping war and famine, to leave behind family, friends, country, culture, language and nearly everything about the life they once knew only to start all over and then have to finish high school while locked down at home during a pandemic—it just seemed too unfair to let it go unacknowledged. So we did what we could.

This video is a compilation that I created with the help of my graduate assistant, Ana María Economou. I combed through three years of photos to find the best shots of each graduating student. Combined with group shots, a video message from me and some inspirational quotes, it became a fantastic compilation and expression of love and appreciation for our young partners. (Note: ten separate congratulations videos and photos from current and former MAIAI graduate students were also collected and posted separately to social media.). In my own video message as the director, I made sure to remind the students how grateful we are for all that they taught us and that they should be proud that they helped us become better teachers. As Brazilian education scholar and theorist Paolo Freire reminds us, teaching is an act of love and “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning”. Creating a video in celebration of our young partners seemed like a small, but critical gesture to strengthen our partnership and express our gratitude and love during a very challenging time. For a population that can too often feel invisible in our society, we wanted our message to be “we see you and we celebrate you.”

We don’t use the word love much in education, but if ever there was a time to express love towards the young people we work with, this felt like the time. I and the YAAAS graduate student participants offer our heartfelt congratulations to Abou, Asende, Daniel, Eliza, Hussein, Intesar, Jawhir, Luke, Mosi, Mwacha, Njem, and Wael for your graduation from high school.