March 07, 2022

Five years of EmpowerYouth!

While young people are feeling uncertain about their future and the world around them, Lyric continues to invest deeply in educational and community engagement programs that encourage participants to express their hopes, fears, and dreams through opera.

The 2021/22 season marks the fifth year of Lyric’s EmpowerYouth! igniting creativity through the arts program in partnership with the Chicago Urban League. The initiative encourages and guides Black Chicago high school students in creating an original production drawn from the stories of their lives and how they deal with issues pertinent to them. Participants in the program work with professional artistic staff and program facilitators to learn how principles of performance, the written word, music, and dance can translate to their everyday lives.

The multi-disciplinary program helps Chicago students learn to transform their own stories into art.

During 2020/2021, determined to not let the pandemic deter the creative process, EmpowerYouth! participants continued to work and create virtually. This season the process has been a hybrid of online learning and group discussions to foster the creation of a new work, and in-person sessions where the young artists perform together. The pandemic has brought unique challenges for students of all ages. The overwhelming sense of uncertainty, in and out of the classroom, has led to greater introspection. This year 18 participants have chosen to focus on identity as a driving theme for their work. Students will work in small groups with Lyric’s Community Programs Coordinator Angela Hamilton and Chicago Urban League staff to discuss their identities and the stake they want to claim in this world. Participants spend their time with EmpowerYouth! mentors and teaching artists, learning about the art of opera, and developing their work further in group discussions. 

This year participants will be working with three talented artist mentors: Tanji Harper for dance, Shawn Wallace for music, and Vic Wynter for acting. This is a unique opportunity for young people to work directly with experienced artists and to explore multiple art forms to express themselves. Working with these artists can be a transformative experience for participants. “The most surprising thing was me coming out of my shell with singing,” said one participant from last year’s sessions.

“I did not expect that!” Hamilton and the Chicago Urban League staff prioritize creating a safe and stable environment for young people to explore these art forms. Social workers are available to work with students, who get one-to-one time with staff and support as they navigate high school, the pandemic, and figuring out what’s next for them.

Group activities help the students to develop their own original operas.

EmpowerYouth! offers young people a creative opportunity to explore their experiences and identity, which helps inspire them to pursue the arts and find their own voice. Lyric’s 2021/22 EmpowerYouth! ensemble will spend this winter and spring bringing forward personal stories that need to be told, with new collaborators and varying perspectives. The creative platform and support these young artists receive helps them to explore the power of their voices and their storytelling, harnessing them as catalysts for change on many levels.

Photos: Kyle Flubacker