July 5, 2013

Art & the Souls of Young Folk. ~ Joe Elliott

“Life is painful. It has thorns, like the stem of a rose. Culture and art are the roses that bloom on the stem. The flower is yourself, your humanity. Art is the liberation of the humanity inside yourself.

~ Daisaku Ikeda

I am being held in the arms of someone very important to me. She tells me, “I am so happy for you.” Her eyes swell with emotion and she puts words to the joy and excitement that my eighteen year old stoic self cannot express. She grabs me by the arms, looks me in the eye and with a wry smile tells me that she knew I would get in to college in Colorado. 

I come prepared with love poems by Rumi, some sayings from Confucius and a few of my own haiku’s. I read them to a ragtag group of local teens. Between smoke breaks and restless antics, we inspire each other and dream big.

The woman at the center of it all had taken her middle-aged degree in library science and recruited local youths to write and perform poetry. Having a safe space to practice art, to perform and to be seen had a profound impact on me. It gave me so much hope and the ability to go on and do the things that I wanted to do in my life.

This spring, as I prepared to teach a class on Adolescent Development, I immersed myself in research and best practices on working with young people. It was easy to get lost in the data and not remember my own powerful experiences. With some amount of digging, I found out about programs in my own community that worked with teens. They had some of the same potent energy that I found as a young person.

While there is much debate about the role of schools as public institutions, one of the worst decisions has been to take funding away from the arts.

Art is not an addendum to our development as human beings, but an essential part of building culture, community and creating a sense of belonging. I was so firmly convinced that I worked to show how effective it can be in engaging young people and in providing tangible social and emotional benefits. The following research makes the case in a succinct way.

Young people who are involved in after-school community arts programs:

  • Are four times more likely to have won school-wide attention for their academic achievement
  • Are elected to class office within their schools more than three times
  • Are four  times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
  • Are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance

The following is outcomes research from surveys for a program called Art from Ashes in Denver, Colorado which uses poetry and writing assignments adapted for youth in a variety of contexts.

Self-reporting surveys:

    • showed a 25% increase in feeling connected to their communities
    • showed a 12% increase in youth who say that they stay away from drugs all of the time
    • showed a 20% increase in the number of youth who said they stay away from violence and fighting all of the time
    • showed an increase of 32% in the number of youth who said that they have control over things that happen to them all of the time
    • showed an increase of 40% in the number of youth who said they stay out of trouble all of the time

The following is a clip showcasing the work of Art From Ashes:



[1] Brice Heath, S., Soep, E. & Roach, A. Living the arts through language and learning.  Carnegie Foundation for Language and Learning.  Monographs:  Americans for the arts, November 1998, Vol 2, Issue 7.

[1] Art from Ashes, 2012, Lewis Lease.


Joe Elliott has been working to help families for the past thirteen years. His specialties are in couples counseling, family therapy, death and dying, parenting, financial management, and adoption. Joe received his undergraduate degree from Naropa University in Psychology and Religious Studies and his Masters in Counseling from Regis University in Denver. Joe completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Denver Family Institute. Joe has also taught Family Therapy to students at Metro State University of Denver. Find out more here.


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Assist Ed: Julie Garcia/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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