Realizing that I can help others have a positive perspective makes me feel alive.
If you want to connect with teenagers, you’ve got to “keep it real.”
This sage advice from Michelle McGraw, a teaching artist with MGR Youth Empowerment, goes a long way.
During the school year, McGraw works as both an artist-in-residence and an after-school art activism teacher with MGR Youth Empowerment, a non-profit organization that works with youth from under-resourced communities and often partners with the Pittsburgh Public School system. Her goal? To empower today’s youth through art.
“Many of these kids have not had an easy life,” she emphasizes. “They see things. I want to give them opportunities to create art that helps them realize they can make a difference. To do this, I have to be on their level as much as they are on mine.”
McGraw facilitates projects linked to students’ current school curriculum. At Arsenal Middle school, she and her students created black out poetry referencing rap artist Tupac Shakur and large musical visuals showcasing the work of poet Langston Hughes.
At Clairton Education Center’s CASTLE program, her students immersed themselves in an “I Am Somebody” campaign, projecting shadow silhouettes on huge sheets of plywood, crafting symbolic messages addressing issues that are important to them.
For five weeks during the summer of 2014, McGraw taught fourth through eighth graders through an MGR Youth Empowerment placement at Langley High School, as part of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamer’s Academy. Her “dreamers” designed giant graphic posters—with messages like “End Bullying” and “Stop the Violence” they displayed during the MGR Youth Rally for Change in August.
“I’m teaching them to take negative feelings and express them with positive language,” says McGraw. “I’m also learning to just let them have full discussions about what matters in their neighborhoods—helping them to realize that they can be a big part of changes and developments in their community.”
Exposing kids to art through activism not only gives them a voice but also an artistic outlet, in an era when so many schools are cutting art from their curriculum.
“The kids need room for creativity,” she says. “I really like to let them take their feelings and put in color, put in the words, and just create.”
McGraw is thrilled that she can use her own art skills—honed as an art student at Carlow—and share them with others.
Find out more about Carlow University's Art program.