Article Features Mary Beth Barber

Engaging Your City’s Youth Through the Arts

Mary Beth Barber is special projects coordinator for the California Arts Council and can be reached at For more about the California Arts Council, visit

The arts bring kids to school even on the rainiest days, the late columnist William Safire once noted, and it’s still true today. The arts also play a vital role in a community’s quality of life and contribute to a vibrant local economy.

Cities can participate directly in youth arts programs that have lasting impacts. Arts programs benefit not only the young people who participate but also the broader community.

Music and Performing Arts Improve Life Skills and More

For example, the City of San Fernando invests directly in an award-winning Mariachi Master Apprentice Program. Launched in 2001 as an experiment, the program has garnered international recognition. The program’s effect on young musicians is impressive. Over the past decade 100 percent of the students enrolled in the program have graduated. Typically comparable rates are less than 60 percent. Teen participants take pride in their heritage and cultural identity, and graduates of the program return to mentor younger students. The program received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2012.“They learn to be at rehearsals on time and to come prepared,” says instructor Sergio Alonso. “They start to apply these skills in different aspects of their lives.”

Using the Arts to Address Youth-Related Issues

The arts can also help address major social issues. In an 18-month period between 2009 and 2011, several high-school students in Palo Alto committed suicide. “These tragic events rocked the community,” says Rhyena Halpern, assistant director of the Community Services Department of the City of Palo Alto. Palo Alto responded by developing Project Safety Net, a suicide-prevention initiative. The collaboration included the Teen Arts Council, which develops original performing-arts productions by teens on the subject of suicide, as well as performing and visual arts classes addressing other concerns.

Cities Work With Schools To Provide Arts Services

Some cities take an active role in providing arts services in schools. The City of Pasadena’s Arts & Culture Commission invests directly in children and youth. The “My Masterpieces” partnership with the Pasadena Unified School District and 10 nonprofits provides arts education programming for grades K–6, including teacher training, family access, field trips and classroom curricula.

The Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission also supports the Northwest Student Ambassador Program for high-school students by hiring them to serve as docents during ArtsNight Pasadena. The students learn valuable job skills, and the various neighborhoods benefit from community interaction.

A Win-Win Approach

Arts programming can also give youths appreciation for their hometowns. About Productions, an arts nonprofit organization in Pasadena, created a program where youths engage in discussions with their neighbors and then use that dialogue as inspiration to create plays and a community mural. Funding from the City of Pasadena allowed About Productions to conduct additional workshops in local high schools, and one teacher said her students now want to explore their own cultural history and create a play as well.

A very modest investment can help foster community interaction with youth and families. After displaying artwork from the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation’s youth summer camp program, the City of Vallejo opted to remove the 1970s artwork in city hall and invest in a professional art-hanging system. Exhibits change quarterly and alternate between professional artists and youth programs. An inexpensive reception is held for each show, drawing people to city hall and encouraging residents to participate in civic life.

These are just a few examples of cities investing directly in arts programming for youth. Hundreds of programs like these operate throughout California, with limitless possibilities for local government officials and staff to engage the young people in their community through the performing and visual arts.

Related Resources

Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, City of San Fernando Recreation & Community Services
Project Safety Net
City of Pasadena Arts & Cultural Affairs Division
About Productions
Vallejo Community Arts Foundation
California Arts Council

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Western City
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