In #RaiseMKE Commentary

Express Yourself Milwaukee helps kids cross a bridge to a better life through art. (PHOTO: Express Yourself Milwaukee Facebook)

ExYoMKE sets a committed pace for thousands of at-risk youth

The saying is one full of hope and promise.

"And The Artist Shall Lead Them."

You can see it all over Milwaukee, places where the performing arts commit to changing the world around them. First Stage with its motto of "Transforming Lives Through Theater." The Milwaukee Rep generating community discussions about serious issues. Bronzeville Arts Ensemble with it's powerful focus on the black community.

But there may be no effort so sustained, successful and joyful as Express Yourself Milwaukee (ExYoMKE).

For 15 years, under the guidance of art therapist Lori Vance, ExYoMKE has gone one-on-one with some of the most disaffected children in Milwaukee, children of all races and genders, and tried to help them see the world through the eyes of an artist.

Each year over 1,000 young people participate in their programs. Almost all of them come from low-income families and half of them have delinquency and other behavioral problems. All of them have experienced trauma of some kind.

In 2001, Vance – an art therapist and visual artist — recognized the need in Milwaukee for a very different kind of arts program. Through her daily work as a therapist, Vance witnessed the difficulty that urban at-risk youth have in connecting with therapeutic arts resources provided in outpatient services.

Through a national conference collaboration, Vance connected with Express Yourself, a Boston organization established in 1988 and built on the belief that using art to build ongoing relationships with at-risk youth can have life-changing results. Different than traditional artist-in-residence models which offer time-limited inspiration, Vance saw that the Express Yourself approach could address the need she identified in Milwaukee.

The first pilot for the program was run in 2001, and two years later, ExYoMKE was incorporated as the first affiliate chapter of Express Yourself. Since then, Express Yourself Milwaukee has expanded greatly, affecting the lives of more than 1,100 youth annually across metropolitan Milwaukee.

From the beginning, nationally-recognized guest artists joined with ExYo to instruct and perform with program youth at our annual year-end celebration. Artists include Jimmy Santiago Baca, cast members from "STOMP," Amlak Tafari of British reggae group Steel Pulse, Lex Allen, Lucky Diop and many others.

In the 15 years, a wide variety of local artists have developed into a team of creative professionals who care deeply about Milwaukee.

"We know that art can heal and change lives – we see it happen every day," Vance says on ExYo's website. "Our team is committed to being a positive, consistent presence in the lives of the youth we serve."

That word "consistent" is an important one in the world of ExYo. The organization has an abiding commitment to staying with a child, no matter how difficult the challenges may be. In a city where school suspensions of children of color lead the nation, this idea of keeping kids involved is both rare and powerful.

The arts immersion programs run all year and feature both local and national artists. Former Milwaukee Buck Desmond Mason, an accomplished visual artist, worked with children this year.

The culmination of the programs is the annual show, this year to be held May 4 at the Milwaukee Theatre. It's a family friendly show with a different theme each year – for 2017, it's "SOUL." For those who haven't seen these kids in action, it's a chance to see how dramatic art can be when it comes to stimulating activity and fostering a kind of creativity that many children never thought they had.

"In our studio we help young people find another kind of language for expression, and it's really exciting," said Holly Haebig, a well-known Milwaukee singer and artist.

The organization is working toward moving to the home of The Running Rebels, one of the most successful and long running organizations working with at-risk youth in Milwaukee. The work of ExYoMKE has been supported by a wide variety of organizations and has caught the attention of Mayor Tom Barrett.

"We as adults, have a moral obligation to create hope in the lives of young people," Barrett said. "Sadly, there are a lot of young people in Milwaukee who don't have hope in their lives. We need to find those avenues where we can reach young people and Express Yourself Milwaukee provides one of those avenues. "

Information on the show this year as well as how to donate to this worthy program is available here.

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