DeFede: Youth Expressions Hitting A High Note

November 24, 2008
"Alright, let's go through a rehearsal," Michael Rosenfeld calls out Saturday afternoon. "Let's go through one more time."

Rosenfeld, the executive director of Youth Expressions, is corralling the dozen or so teenagers slated to perform in about an hour for friends, family members and supporters of the Little Haiti based group which reaches out to young people with a desire to perform on stage.

"Many of our kids come from foster care, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the street," Rosenfeld says. "They come because they want to be artists. That's sort of our hook."

With arts funding in local schools being cut or eliminated, having an outlet like Youth Expressions, also known as YE, is critical.

"What we do is we work with youth in the area that are into the arts – rapping, singing, poetry, spoken word," says Calvin Early, one of the original members of YE and is now the group's program coordinator. "We are what you would call an outlet for young people to speak and be able to get their voices heard and to really vent about different things going on in their life."

Of course it is not all about performing. Once the kids start coming to YE, they receive help in other areas of their lives – like at school or at home – that they might be reluctant to ask for otherwise. Many of the kids come in believing that their only shot of making something of themselves is through music or sports.

"The notorious illusion is a concept the kids came up with," Rosenfeld says, "that the only way for them to be successful is to be a rapper, a singer, a dancer or a ballplayer. So they come in thinking that is what Youth Expressions is all about, and it's not."

But the performances are important.

"It was a place for me to get creative," says Sabrina Williams, who first started coming to YE when she was in high school and now returns to help out.

"When I started coming I fell in love with it," says Christopher Leger. "Music has always been my escape; it's always been what set me free. So when I got to YE it was just beautiful. It kept me off the streets. I feel like it saved my life."

Leger talks about how when he first started coming he saw folks from rival gangs, but he learned to put his differences with them aside.

"It's powerful, that we were able to do that through music," he says. "So instead of fighting and shooting, we just wrote songs and we just got everybody together."

Seanetta Carson, 17, says YE gave her confidence she might not otherwise have.

"Personally, I don't like talking about my problems," she says. "And YE was something that helped me. Through my music I was able to get certain things out that normally I would keep bottled up."

The performance Saturday was a 20-minute, three act play featuring poetry, song and rap, which was written entirely by the students. It centered on the AIDS crisis and how the decision each of us makes can have consequences for others. It was a powerful piece, raw both in terms of its language and emotion.

The piece was so good in fact, Kim Green, head of the Green Family Foundation, which helps fund Youth Expressions, suggested the group appear at the Keep A Child Alive annual summit in New York City last week. (Keep A Child Alive is the group founded by Grammy award winning artist Alicia Keys. It works on fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa.)

For most of the teenagers, their trip to New York marked the first time they had ever been on an airplane.

When they did perform in New York, Keys was so impressed with what the Miami teens had done, she invited them on a five-city tour around the country as well as a performance in South Africa. The details of the trip are still being worked out, but officials are hopeful it will come together this Spring.

Rosenfeld, YE's founder, said he was thrilled that the teens were being recognized for their hard work and creativity.

"The kids aren't forced to come," he notes. "They come because they want to and they are there on a regular basis and they commit their lives to themselves first and foremost, but also to their education, to this program, and to each other."