By YPT Resident Teaching Artist Kawanza Billy
In June 2022, I became a Resident Teaching Artist at Young Playwrights Theater. I applied for two reasons: being aligned with YPT, seeing every young person as brilliant, and the SAFER program.
Through Students Advocating for the Eradication of Racism (SAFER), students use the medium of theater to address pressing issues in their community, anti-racism, and other social justice issues. YPT partnered with Sitar Arts Center this year, meeting weekly over several months and ultimately sourcing content from playwrights throughout the YPT network to produce a staged reading in May 2023.
Reflecting on my experience leading SAFER at Young Playwrights Theater, I am filled with pride and joy. Young people were able to learn some fundamental components of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We learned how theaters nationwide are prioritizing social justice in their works and about playwrights highlighting their lived experiences, as well as how playhouses and companies are making accommodations and forming antiracist policies and practices.
Witnessing the passion and creativity of the high school students in SAFER taught me that every young person has a story to tell. One particular moment that stands out in my memory was when a sophomore at Duke Ellington wrote a response to a piece created by an adult playwright at PGCC. This piece added depth to our stage reading by pulling attention to the youth experience of navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd across the country as a young Black youth with family pressure to exceed.
Through SAFER, I saw in real time that social justice and artistic expression could intersect in powerful ways. Between the beginning of the program, when we shared our life maps and learned key terms, to the stage reading, when professional actors read students’ work, the power of activism was apparent.
Witnessing the voices of marginalized youth amplified through SAFER was incredibly inspiring because there aren’t many spaces that allow them to simply create. The experience of leading SAFER reaffirmed my belief in the power of centering youth experience because all systemic issues impact them and they are the least likely to be looked to for feedback or solutions. I can’t wait until the next season.