Citi Center brings opportunities to urban youth through summer program

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Dreams can only come true when there are opportunities to fulfill them. It is difficult for teens living in areas like Mattapan and Dorchester to find outlets for their artistic talents. The Citi Performing Arts Center in Boston is a non-profit organization that has been providing help for young people through their City Spotlights Leadership Program.

Last year, the program helped 31 teens coming from 22 different schools and 10 Boston neighborhoods. This year, the program expanded to welcome 61 students. It teaches leadership, community, and career development skills to these “Teen Leaders.”

“This is my third year attending this program. In my neighborhood I don’t really have the power or the voice to artistically express myself so when I’m in the Shubert or the Wang [theaters]…I feel like I am in complete control to feel and do whatever I need,” said participant Alex Drumm, Jr.  This is Drumm’s third year in the program, and he plans to return because there are few performing opportunities in his Dorchester neighborhood.

“In the program there’s lot of workshop sessions where we are able to discuss on how to create…it just feels very fulfilling,” he said.

The program was created in 2006 to provide performing opportunities for teens, and to offer them a summer job. While they develop their artistic talents, they also get paid for their effort and learn how to conduct themselves in a professional setting.

Credit: Kelly Prestell

City Spotlights Teen Leaders and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg in the Senate Reading Room at the Massachusetts State House. Credit: Kelly Prestel

This year, the teens were given the chance to choose important issues pertaining to their communities, and present them at the Massachusetts State House’s Senate Reading Room.  They even met with President of the Senate, Stan Rosenberg, and performed “Fearless Love” on the Grand Staircase.

Program Director Kelly Prestel says that City Spotlights is not just about leadership training, but is also an important place for teens to find their artistic voice and feel protected.

“This is their safe space, this is where they can be themselves and won’t have to worry about what’s happening at home or the struggles that they are dealing with,” said Prestel. “The point for us is that this needs to be their agency to find their voice and to use that voice for good in their community through the arts.”

Dorchester teen Michaela Bates agrees, and says that she was able to develop her talents in the program. It also gave her the chance to explore Boston, which was something new for her.

“Everything I need is right there, so I don’t leave my area too often,” she said. “So for me to actually have to get on a bus, to only get on another and then a train to get to work… is great because I am now exposed to so much that I have never thought I would see.”

It was a significant experience for Bates, and has helped prepare her for UMass Boston, where she will be studying nursing.

“There will be people who don’t look exactly like me, so if I can see the diversity now and then go into college, then it can prep me for [it],” Bates said.
During the program, speakers focused on the importance of education, and emphasize that it is possible to do well academically while not abandoning their passion for the arts.

The group has performed all over the city, and even did flash mob shows in venues like Faneuil Hall.

Kelly Prestel was amazed to see how the teens took ownership of their summer program. In particular, the kids were able to design their own curriculum.

“We have been very hands off in the creative process which to us is a victory,” Prestel said.

Guyclaude Lacossade is the Junior Assistant for Music, and this has been his fourth summer at the program. For the first three years he was a participant, and then was grateful to be given the chance to come back and help teach.  His favorite part of the program was observing how the teen were able to come out of their shells, which he felt was a big success.

“When I watch them come in and grow and see how these experiences have impacted them…it’s like whoa… It’s just amazing. Because of my experience here…I just want to be a part of this program in any way possible,” Lacossade said.

He also credits the program with giving him the experience and knowledge that he needed to be a Junior Assistant.

“I just want to be a part of this program in any way possible because I’ve been here for so long,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that have changed my life. So I just want others to have that chance.”

Prestel wishes there were more programs in the city to help urban youth. She says the goal of City Spotlights is not only to help teens be better prepared for college and future jobs, but also to build confidence and understand the importance of serving your community.

Prestel believes that it is crucial for young people to see that they can start being community leaders today, and not wait until they are older. “The more they can do for themselves, the more opportunities for that growth,” she said.

Contact Tamara Starr at [email protected]