April 28, 2018 was a culminating day for San Diego youth (teen) leaders who organized, planned, and implemented the AAY! Summit: Arts Amplifying Youth! Given the opportunity to have a youth-driven, youth-led arts summit, San Diego teens came through and managed the ups and downs of creating an ambitious event. Natalia Escobeda, one of the youth leaders, reflects on her experience in this blog. Also be sure to watch the short videos about the planning of AAY!, the day of the event, and Jason Mraz crashing the event!

AAY! was supported by the Stuart Foundation, The Clare Rose Foundation, the Panta Rhea Foundation, and CSU San Marcos.

Over a year ago, the seeds were planted for what would become a vibrant flowering tree called Arts Amplifying Youth or AAY! for short. The leadership team spearheading Art=Opportunity, a research based arts education movement based out of Centre Artes at Cal State University San Marcos, came up with the idea to hold an arts-based youth summit for youth in San Diego. Their brilliant Executive Director Merryl Goldberg imagined a safe space where youth could express their art around important issues, which is an essential mission of Art=Opportunity. Merryl extended her growing idea to Matt D’Arrigo, who was on the Art=Opp leadership team to lead the event. Matt, Director of Creative Youth Development for the Clare Rose Foundation, reached out to his peers in the San Diego Creative Youth Development Network with an offer hard to refuse: join him to co-create this event for their youth. Among the organizations who came on board were The AjA Project, TranscenDANCE, La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Opera, Izcalli, SOULcial workers, Rock -n- Roll Camp for Girls, and A Reason To Survive (ARTS). They were asked to put forth two youth leaders, who formed a 12-person youth leadership team for an event that had no title, no date, and no actual form. That was the task we were given: Create an event for youth by youth. For our time, talent, and effort, each student would be provided with a $1,000 honorarium and three units of college credit!

On a warm morning last October, a group of a dozen artistic teenagers came together in a small office in Little Italy with the seemingly easy-to-answer question, “How can we bring art to youth in a meaningful way?” They soon discovered that this question was not as easily answered—so they set out on their journey of event planning! October was spent team-building and getting to know each other, building trust and relationships. November consisted of choosing the event’s theme, and our central ones were diversity, inclusion, equity, and change … four words that the leadership committee immediately agreed were relevant to youth artists today. Committees were established to provide for organization of the event; the core five committees—Programming, Marketing, Sponsors, Volunteers, and Resource Fair—consisted of two or more youth and an adult mentor.

January through April was the real nitty-gritty time for the leadership team. The meetings prior to January had been sporadic, and there was a strong lack of communication within the entire leadership team due to the fact that youth were from six different organizations located in six different communities around San Diego, so it was hard to bring everyone together. Finding a form of digital communication proved hard because everyone had different preferences—text, Facebook Messenger, Slack, and the adults preferred email. We solved these challenges by choosing one app, Group Me, and email for digital communication and then began meeting every Saturday for three hours at the site where AAY! would held—the ARTS Center in National City. Together we spent countless hours researching and developing proposals for what could be a schedule that encompassed the four core values of AAY! through a lot of cross committee work in order to embody the opinions of a diverse youth group.

We established 10 youth-led workshops, under the mentorship of a professional artists, of different art forms with fun contents such as commUNITY Art, Act One: Teamwork in Theater and Life, The Art of Makeup!, Equity Through Dance, and Affirming Words. Following would be a lunch time performance by the SOULcial Workers and the Brothers Burns. We discussed inviting artists from outside our Creative Youth Development (CYD) Network to participate as speakers or performers, but within our committee we had an abundance of talent that could get the job done. Our dear friend, social justice warrior, and choreographer Anjanette Maraya-Ramey was to be our keynote opening speaker along with the brilliant Dairrick Khalil Hodges from the SOULcial Workers. We were all content with our programming because not only was it for youth, by youth, but now it was also totally led by the San Diego CYD Network.

The marketing committee reached out to local youth by creating a strong social media platform with engaging videos promoting some of the CYD organizations involved, giving bios on the youth steering committee, and promoting the workshops. They also came together with Toni Robin of TR/PR and Lisa DeMarco of DeMarco Design, the Art=Opp marketing consultants, to create a logo that embodied an urban and artistic vibe which would speak to teens and also related to the overall Art=Opp brand. The result was a contemporary and colorful AAY! 2018 logo that incorporated a microphone image to symbolize “amplifiying” and relate to hip-hop and rap. The students also created a Facebook page which featured videos of various students who have been impacted by the arts.

Saturday, April 28, 2018 is a day that will go down in all our history books. From the moment the 150+ youth entered the building, the energy was already soaring. Both opening remarks resonated beyond measure with the youth, because their stories were incredibly inspiring and their energy was on par with the energy of the room. Once it was time for our first breakout of workshops, the youth were quick to decide which one would be the “most lit” and dispersed across the ARTS Center. Getting to share the workshops with the youth was something of incomparable value. There are no words to describe the sensation that is evoked by a room full of positive young energy that is quick to form a community. After the morning sessions, we all came together to break bread. During lunch, we ate, danced, and sang along to the energetic performances SOULcialWorkers and Brothers Burns before heading back into an afternoon of amazing workshops.

The closing to AAY! was by far the highlight of the day for many. Anjanette had choreographed and directed a closing piece with the youth leads around the theme of “Rise Up.” It was a beautiful mix of poetry, dance, and art that demonstrated how we really can rise from whatever trials and tribulations we have experienced in our lives. Youth from TranscenDANCE gave a stirring dance performance, and hip-hop through body, sound, and spoken word group bkSOUL performed a beautiful similar mix of art forms with themes of social justice that left the room in awe of their utter talent. But the biggest highlight was a surprise appearance by the one and only Jason Mraz! One of the CYD organizations involved was the Jason Mraz Foundation, but we had been told Jason would be “recording” that day. Everyone was left speechless as Jason walked in after we premiered the video for his new song “Have it All.” Having Jason spread his kind, positive, and uplifting words to the youth in attendance was without a doubt the perfect way to close off AAY! 

At our debrief meeting, tears were shed and smiles were shared, but the overall conversation poured heartfelt joy. “I will never forget how happy everybody was, there was so much singing and dancing,” was one of the repeated highlights of the day. In the end, what mattered most was summed up by Dairrick: “The youth voice from the very beginning never left the original intention of our ‘by youth for youth’ motto. We stayed true to our vision and values until the very end.” We actually did it. Months of hard work had finally paid off in an immeasurable way. Arts Amplifying Youth 2018 is just the beginning—we’re already planning for AAY! 2019!