Connecting kids to the arts


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This week Iowa City, a community known for its rich arts scene, literature, and unique eateries, has turned the cultural dial all the way up for this year's Mission Creek Festival — a weeklong extravaganza celebrating food, live music, literature, film, and other artistic endeavors since 2006.

During the hours most events are scheduled, the activities of the festival are aimed at adult audiences. The new Mission Creek youth initiative wants to diversify the festival by creating events specifically for young kids and teenagers.

The initiative consists of four events on Saturday at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St. The first event, 10:30 a.m. is a sing-along and dance time for young kids with local bluegrass/folk artist John Eric. Noon will feature a songwriting workshop hosted by the Iowa Youth Writing Project for junior-high and high-school students.

At 3 p.m. a Chicago public-access dance show for "kids of all ages," Chic-a-Go-Go, will be filmed. Then, at 5 p.m., teens will perform the songs they wrote at the noon workshop, and community members are invited to watch and listen.

"To me, it's just important that kids feel like they have a voice and that they are part of a community so when they get older they have a sense of being an active member of the community," said poet Dora Malech, the director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project. "The arts, to me, are a great builder of community no matter what role the kids want to play in that community."

Malech was one of the key builders of the new initiative, along with University of Iowa communications-studies Professor Kembrew McLeod, who approached Malech with the idea.

McLeod said he hopes Saturday's events will be a different kind of outlet for kids to grow their creative skills.

"Because the arts are not valued in our education system as much as they should, we need to find other ways to expose young people to the arts, because it really opens up people's horizons," he said. "It opens up a whole new world to them once they realize they, too, can be creative."

City High freshman Maya, who has participated in numerous Iowa Youth Writing Project workshops in the past, agrees with McLeod that schools largely ignore the value of the arts and that they can be complementary to "core classes" such as math and science.

"When I go to school, it's the math, science, writing, and that's about it for seven hours a day, and they never really focus on the creative things," she said. "So combining the creative with the academic is definitely a good thing to do."

The songwriting workshop will divide the kids into teams, and volunteers will help each team write the lyrics. Alyse Burnside, a cofounder of Girls Rock Iowa City (a new one-week camp for girls to learn aboutsong writing) is volunteering during the workshop.

She said songwriting and music can help kids in personal ways outside of connecting to the community.

"[It is] empowering in the sense that when you write your own song, it's you saying what you want to say and then performing it for an audiences, and there's something cool about that," she said. "It's scary, and it takes a lot of confidence. When kids know that they can do that, it can help their self-esteem."

The Iowa Youth Writing Project has other events going on this weekend in connection with Mission Creek. Dessa, a rapper/songwriter from Minneapolis will perform at 6 p.m. today at Gabe's, 330 E. Washington St. On Friday, she will accompany members of the project to Tate High to speak with students.

The project, which has had a relationship with Tate for three years, representatives visit the school twice a week to work with students. Malech said meeting Dessa and talking with her may encourage students to pursue creative goals.

"I think that it sets the bar really high for them," she said. "It shows that we respect them and respect their voices enough to bring someone who's working at a really high level in to work with them. I think it really makes the conversations we have about following your goals and your dreams a lot less abstract and a lot more real."

Dessa, who visits schools in Minneapolis as well, said she tends to let the kids drive the conversation. She is willing to speak with them on a range of topics, including creative processes and what it's like to make a career out of music and writing.

She started visiting schools because schools invited her, and she sees it as a way to give after achieving success, having released three albums thus far. She said she grew up in a home with two parents who love her and always had food on the table, two things she realizes not all kids have.

"On the occasions I'm asked to speak to students, it seems like a fair way to return the favor; I was dealt a pretty good hand," she said.

The youth initiative is still in its infancy, and the goal is to grow it even larger next year. Two events McLeod said he wanted to include but wasn't able to this year are creative fiction and nonfiction workshops.

"It's another outlet to have fun," he said. "Second, they're likely to meet new people who have like-minded interests, so it's a way of connecting young people to other people who have the same interest and strengthen our community."

Mission Creek Youth
When: 10:30 a.m., noon, 3 & 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn
Admission: Free

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