July 20, 2022

EmpowerYouth! comes full circle

In fall 2017, Lyric announced a groundbreaking, multiyear program: EmpowerYouth! Igniting Creativity through the Arts. The company's first partnership with the Chicago Urban League, this program was designed to guide and encourage Black Chicago high school students from the South and West sides to share their own stories through an original performance. Over the past five years, nearly 100 students from grades 9-12 have participated in the program. Throughout the school year, they work with professional artistic staff and program facilitators to learn the fundamentals of storytelling, music, drama, and dance.

Dance mentor Tanji Harper cheers on students from the front row during the final presentation.

Choreographer Tanji Harper — artistic director at The Happiness Club and founder of Blu Rhythm Chicago — has been with the program since its inception. "Programs like this give young people space and opportunity to learn and evolve in their artistry," said Harper. "It exposes them to different facets of the arts and it gives them teamwork and ensemble work, which means they get to gel together, create things together... And it takes them up a notch every single time they do it. The more we do this with our young people, the more they will open their brains to whatever it is they want to dream they can do. They'll try it and they won't be afraid."

On June 8, students, mentors, and program facilitators gathered with family and friends at the Chicago Urban League for the first in-person final performance in two years, fittingly titled "Full Circle." Presented in a showcase format, participants shared original scenes, songs, dances, and spoken word performances, accompanied on piano by music mentor Shawn Wallace. As in previous years, EmpowerYouth! participants were not afraid to touch on real issues and topics impacting their daily lives. With the help of acting mentor Vic Wynter, students poured themselves into their characters, addressing important themes like family, community, intimacy, trauma, life, and death.

Daja Reeves, Sidni Mitchell, and Jaydan Dillard perform an original dance to close out the "Full Circle" showcase.

"I love the people of EmpowerYouth! and the staff," said sophomore Michael Croffet. "I appreciate the closest friends I could have, and I'm glad for each and every last one." These deep friendships and relationships fostered with mentors help create a safe space for students to grow and learn. High school junior Jaydan Dillard said that EmpowerYouth! gave them "a space to properly express myself and truly be my unfiltered self." As a budding writer, Jaydan says they are often their own biggest critic, but have learned that "I can't let my own insecurities block my shine." Senior Brandon Black has enjoyed acting since the 7th grade, but credits the loving and fun-filled environment of EmpowerYouth! for helping him open up and be less shy around his peers. "Stepping out of your box or comfort zone can be a wonderful thing...I didn't want it to end." Neither does Lyric.

Michael Croffet, Elijah Cooper, and Brandon Black perform an original scene titled "A Eulogy from Memory."

Creating new works and learning skills like dancing, singing, and acting can be difficult under the best circumstances, but EmpowerYouth! participants managed to create something wonderful while dealing with the realities of spotty internet and busy schedules. This year's presentation was called "Full Circle" because in 2020, rehearsals began in person and finished virtually. 2021 led to an entirely virtual cohort, and then, in 2022, the group began virtually and ended together again. Over the past five years, students, mentors, and staff have poured their time, energy, and hearts into EmpowerYouth!. This spring, the program may have come full circle, but there will always be more stories to tell.

To learn more about EmpowerYouth!, visit lyricopera.org/empoweryouth.

Header photo: The 2022 participants of EmpowerYouth! take a final bow.

All photos: Jaclyn Simpson