Column: Youth in Danger: Art Appeals to Life

A column from Arts in the News

by Janet Eilber

January 15, 2007

What is the definition of “at-risk youth”?

That phrase often comes up in arts education circles and the articles we review. Many arts programs aim at “improving the lives of at-risk youth.” Generally, the phrase refers to young people seen as disadvantaged. But at its most fundamental (and disturbing), it refers to young people who are in real danger of not living through adolescence.

In recent years, while arts organizations have asked how the arts can increase the well-being of young people in distressed circumstances, a growing number of health organizations have come at the question from the other direction. These organizations have asked: How can our efforts to increase youth longevity be influenced by the arts? Although the goals of both health and arts groups are very much aligned in improving the quality of life for young people, little has been done to coordinate these organizations and their endeavors.

However, a brand new report—so new it hasn’t been released yet—provides an overview of these separate efforts. The report, The Power of Art: Pathways to Healthy Youth Development, was commissioned by The California Endowment, a major health foundation that is in the forefront of a growing number of public health funders that recognize that the arts can be an effective intervention strategy for at-risk youth.

In early January, as one of about 40 Los Angeles–area funders invited to learn about the report, I participated in a discussion led by Dr. Robert Ross, pediatrician and dynamic CEO of The California Endowment. In commissioning the report, Ross and the endowment had charged the research team with identifying and analyzing the existing body of evidence regarding the impact of the arts on youth health and well-being.

One of the findings is the discovery of a “national infrastructure” of nonprofit organizations that provide at-risk youth with experiential arts training. This emerging field is providing across-the board evidence that “youth arts” helps kids improve academic achievement, strengthen cultural and personal identity, and avoid risky behaviors. The researchers emphasize that, “These outcomes all point to the essential—involvement in the arts is an unparalleled means for young people to develop the strength, resiliency, and self-image that allow them to participate in society on healthy terms” (emphasis in the original).

Dr. Ross recommended that arts advocates broaden and deepen the traditional argument—“because a democratic society needs culture”—and look for ways to find new alliances.

“Look at how these findings benefit taxpayers, for example,” he suggested. “Look at the savings in the areas of juvenile justice reform, prison reform, and the foster care system.”

He doubted that we could expect the chief of police or superintendent of schools to put the arts at the top of their priorities, but armed with new evidence of the positive impact of arts participation on young people in distressed circumstances, we could be a more powerful part of the conversation.

Let me reassure those arts supporters who, like me, are often disappointed by how some social studies define “arts program.” Although the research team studied a range of offerings in a variety of settings (public school classrooms, after-school venues, juvenile detention camps, and neighborhood spaces among them), the arts programs had common elements that were essential to their success.

Those common characteristics were articulated in “Powerful Voices,” the pioneering monograph from the Surdna Foundation released over five years ago. In my mind, they are the gold standard for high quality arts learning. In the most successful arts programs for young people:

• Students are art makers, not only audience members. Students are responsible for presenting, installing, and/or performing the arts.

• Students have a sustained participation throughout multiple years or long-term projects.

• Students have training with professional artists and often apprenticeships with adults.

• Students are held to rigorous artistic standards and expectations

• Students are provided with safe spaces for their physical and creative security.

Physical and creative security? Risk-taking is a natural part of adolescence, and without a healthy outlet, it is a major threat to youth longevity. The endowment’s researchers remind us that the after-school hours of 3 to 6 p.m. are the peak time for fatal car accidents (the leading cause of death for teenagers), experimentation with drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex.

What are healthy outlets for the adolescent need to take risks? After-school activities such as sports and community involvements offer heightened responsibility and a sense of purpose, but the arts add a third element, a special kind of risk: the personal vulnerability of self-expression.

Finally, a word to those who might rankle at justifying the arts beyond their intrinsic value. They ask, what more do we need to know about the arts but that they enrich the quality of life? A fundamental question being asked today by arts and health organizations alike is: Do the arts actually help make life worth living? Do they give at-risk youth a compelling reason to remain on earth into their third decade?

These are chilling questions, but we’re on the road to important answers. The participants in the meeting at The California Endowment left inspired with new stories, new data, new approaches, new partners.

I encourage you to watch for this report and spread the word. Dr. Ross announced his intentions to release it in the next few weeks. For more information on the endowment visit

I’ll leave you with one more pertinent appetizer. The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh is one of the exemplary organizations included in the report. The Guild’s founding director, William Strickland, is quoted: “We’ve learned that you can’t teach kids algebra if they don’t want to live. And art does that. It appeals to life. It appeals to the part of the brain where the imagination lives.”