Monday, September 13, 2021

Youth Voice and Self-Expression in Afterschool: Art Projects

By Sam Piha


Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a critical strategy for any afterschool program. This is especially important as youth return to afterschool programs after a year of isolation.  

These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially those who have experienced trauma. Strategies and activities include sharing circles, poetry and spoken word, journaling, videography, art and the theater arts.

Practicing art is a transformative experience that not only gives each student the ability to objectively look within but also critically look at the world. Through various media, art teachers are able to teach the core values of  perseverance, community and belonging, respect, and critical thinking on a daily basis." - Bryan Stanton, Alamo Heights High School, "Building Character Through the Arts"

We interviewed Martha Peña (Coordinator, Expanded Learning Programs Community Schools & Student Services, Oakland Unified School District) on the importance of using art projects to promote youth voice and self- expression. Below are some of her responses.

Martha Peña, OUSD
Q: Why is it important to provide youth with opportunities to reflect on and express themselves and their feelings?
A: It's essential to give students the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. It's through these experiences that help a child grow and develop. This is why afterschool programs are so important to youth. Afterschool programs provide a safe and supportive space for students to experience new things, reflect on their experiences, and express themselves without the stress of grades, testing, and judgment. Afterschool staff are supportive caring adults that reflect the community and therefore are able to connect with youth.

Q: Do you think that art projects are a good way to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Art projects provide youth opportunities to express themselves in ways that inspire and spark their creativity. They also help youth process and interpret their feelings and the world around them. It's through these projects that students are able to reflect on their own personal experiences through a variety of mediums from digital storytelling, music, painting, or dance.


Q: Do staff need special training?
A: Providing professional opportunities to staff is crucial to ensure the success of the program. Instructors not only need to know how to teach the content but how to connect with youth and encourage them to take risks and feel comfortable in their own skin.

Q: Can you provide one example of an art project that you did that provided youth with good opportunities for self- expression? What age were the kids?
A: In one of the afterschool programs, the site leader supported students as they created a video about their community. Youth share their experiences and how they use Yoga and SEL to help them manage their feelings and stresses. Students were able to reflect on their own experiences and provide advice and support to other students experiencing the same things.

Q: For programs that plan to continue working with their youth through distance learning, can art projects be done virtually? If so, can you give an example?
A: Yes, afterschool art programs can be done virtually and successfully if you have a strong plan. Many afterschool providers distributed materials to students during the Grab & Go meal distribution sites. Each bag contained several art supplies and instructions on when and how to sign on to their virtual classroom. At the end of the lesson, students and instructors held a virtual showcase, where students and their families could log on and see their artwork. This gave grandparents and families the opportunity to be a part of the experience. 

Martha Peña is a coordinator for afterschool programs for Oakland Unified School District. In her role she manages grant requirements and applications for all ASES and 21st CCLC grants, builds systems that ensure equity and sustainability across all afterschool programs, manages city-wide partnerships, and supports the implementation of Social Emotional Learning in all afterschool programs.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs (Part 2): Important Terms and Definitions


By Sam Piha

According to the Afterschool Alliance, “The afterschool field is an essential partner in ensuring that all children have the ability to participate in immersive, relevant, and hands-on civic engagement opportunities.” Not only are civic engagement strategies participatory strategies, they contribute to the positive development of youth and the health of our democracy. 

We are continuing to post a series of blogs to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to start today infusing civic engagement and activism in their afterschool program. NOTE: There are many program resources on the topic, some of which are detailed in our paper, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs. You can view part 1 of this series here.

In part 2 we offer definitions to a number of terms that are commonly used in relation to youth civic engagement and activism. 

Activism - “Youth activism is used to describe youths which are engaged in community organizing for social change. Young people engaged as activism planners and leaders in the environmental movement, social justice organizations, as well as anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns.”1

Adultism - “Adultism is the assumption that young people are inferior to adults simply because of their young age. Adults often act on this assumption by limiting our access to decision-making, information, resources, human rights, and opportunities to voice our thoughts.”2

We've all heard adults tell kids, you have no reason to be stressed. You don't pay bills. You don't go to work. That's what I like to call toxic adulting. Although we might not pay bills or go to work, we go to school, and we deal with other issues. Just because we're younger does not mean our issues should be minor compared to adults.3            -  Jakeelah Blacknell, grade 8

Agency - “Youth agency is the desire and ability of young people to make decisions and drive change—in their own lives, in their communities, and in their larger spheres of influence. Agency allows young people to become the architects of their own future.”4

Here’s what young people need to unlock their agency: 5 


Authentic Learning - “Authentic learning is an instructional approach that places students at the heart of real-life experiences. Armed with a challenge to address, a task to be handled, or content to explore, students develop academic and problem-solving skills in a context that is relevant to the learner.”6

Civic Engagement - Civic engagement encompasses a wide range of actions and behaviors that improve communities and help solve problems. “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”7

Community Service - “Community service is work done by a person or group of people that benefits others. It is often done near the area where you live, so your own community reaps the benefits of your work. You do not get paid to perform community service, though sometimes food and small gifts, like a t-shirt, are given to volunteers. Community service can help any group of people in need: children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, English language learners, and more. It can also help animals, such as those at a shelter, and it can be used to improve places, such as a local park, historic building, or scenic area as well. Community service is often organized through a local group, such as a place of worship, school, or non-profit organization. You can also start your own community service projects.”8 

Equity - Equity is often confused with equality. “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”9   


Healing Centered Engagement - “A key component of Healing Centered Engagement, is taking loving action, by collectively responding to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma. By taking action, (e.g. school walkouts, organizing peace march, or promoting access to healthy foods) it builds a sense of power and control over their lives. Research has demonstrated that building this sense of power and control among traumatized groups is perhaps one of the most significant features in restoring holistic well-being.”10

Meaningful Contribution - “When we talk about contributing, it’s not just about being kind or volunteering here and there (although both are important). It refers to “contributions of consequence”—actions that have substantial benefits to others that help to reach a shared goal. This type of contributing involves not simply taking a single action but playing an important role within a group—whether it’s a family, school, or community.”11  

Sanctuary - “Youth descriptions of sanctuary often went a step beyond what is commonly referred to as psychological safety, which is defined as feeling comfortable enough to take interpersonal risks; that is, a state in which people feel confident to express their views or make mistakes. A protected space may be considered psychologically safe, and this may be an important component of sanctuary. However, an affirming space does not simply lack physical or psychological danger. Rather, youth were often quick to note that aspects of their identity are celebrated (not just tolerated) in these spaces.”12

Service Learning - According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”13  

Social Capital - “The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]. The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well.”14  

Social Justice - Social justice promotes fairness and equity across many aspects of society. “Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”15 

FOOTNOTES:, Youth Activism,

Youth on Board, What is Adultism?,

NPR, How Indiana Teens Find Resilience During COVID Pandemic,

International Youth Foundation, What is Youth Agency?,


Lexia, Creating Authentic Learning Experiences in the Literacy Classroom,, Civic Engagement,

Christine Sarikas, Definition: What is Community Service?,

Milken Institute School of Public Health, Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference?,

10 Shawn Ginwright, The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement,

11 Meghan Lynch Forder, What Teens Gain When They Contribute to Their Social Groups,

12 Thomas Akiva, Roderick L. Carey, Amanda Brown Cross, Lori Delale-O'Connor, Melanie R. Brown, Reasons Youth Engage In Activism Programs: Social Justice Or Sanctuary?,

13 Heather Wolpert-Gawron, What the Heck Is Service Learning?,

14 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone,

15 The San Diego Foundation, What is Social Justice?,

Youth Voice and Self-Expression in Afterschool: Art Projects

By Sam Piha Source: Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a ...