Youth, Art, & Change

In honor of National Poetry Month we asked COMPAS poet and theater artist May Lee-Yang to share how she uses the arts to engage teenagers in social justice work. Thanks for inspiring us, May!


Students discussing social justice and getting ready to create a poetry mural

Students discussing social justice and getting ready to create a poetry mural

Earlier this year, I led two COMPAS programs for Youthrive, a nonprofit that engages youth and adults in leadership and peacemaking. Specifically, they educate other youth about the work of the Nobel Laureates and challenge youth to think about the issues in their own world.

I worked with Youthrive as a theater artist and a poet. These are two different mediums, but what unites them is this: they are creative ways to break the ice, talk about hard issues, and build more empathy across differences. 

Close up of a tile from the poetry mural

My program for Youthrive youth, adult mentors, and staff used theater tools—not to create a show—but to facilitate a training around team-building, public speaking, and practicing improv to do better community engagement work in their own communities.

In March, Youthrive hosted the Being the Change Conference, a one-day conference with over 200 youth leaders to learn more about this year’s theme: the rights of the child. I facilitated a poetry mural project for attendees, which combined visual art and original poetry. I chose poetry to engage youth on the topic of social justice because unlike a performance that requires actors to be present, the poems could continue to be displayed and read long after the conference was over.

The finished mural

The finished mural

I also chose poetry as a medium because when talking about our differences, it is easy to create tension. When talking about our dreams for a better world, it is easy to get philosophical. But art, and especially creative writing, makes issues more human and, thus, accessible.

During this project, for example, it was great to see students creating poems that reflected issues they were facing in the real world.  

One youth wrote:

I dream of one day living in a society that doesn’t view my religion as a cult.
I dream society doesn’t judge me by what’s on my head but what comes out of my mouth.
I dream that we all can be united.

This poem is about social change, but it’s also one person’s real-life journey.

Another youth, Kaitlyn Zinnecker, responded to a prompt about describing a peaceful world using the five senses:

I can taste hateful words that get caught in my throat
I can hear all the screams for help
I can feel the cold that surrounds me
I can smell the smoke
I can see the darkness
This is a cruel world.

I can taste the good truth
I can hear the triumphant shouts
I can feel the warmth and the love
I can smell the fresh air
I can see the light at the end of the tunnel
This is a peaceful world.   

After poems were written on canvas, we compiled all the pieces, creating a larger image. As a writer, I like metaphors, and I liked the idea that, though participants did not know what the end product was, each of them was integral to creating one puzzle piece that, once assembled, created a unified message.

by May Lee-Yang

To book a program with May, visit her COMPAS artist page. You can also read more about May's background and art in her Artist Spotlight.