In a city where many children attend a public school with no art program, the Youth Resiliency Institute (YRI) is using art to teach Baltimore youth about their history, themselves, and effective community engagement.
YRI is an arts institute under the umbrella of Fusion Partnerships Inc., a nonprofit organization that sponsors social justice initiatives, according to its website. YRI was founded by Fanon Hill and Navasha Daya in 2010 and teaches youth to use their art and culture to develop as persons and transform their communities.
Hill is a self-taught musician whose background is in education and youth development. Daya is a professional vocalist and music educator who has traveled the world with her singing, and is currently a member of the touring group Sweet Honey and the Rock. "Healthy cultural identity leads to your success in life," Daya said. "If you don't know who you are, how are you going to move forward?
Someone defining you for yourself? That's not how you become successful in a real, true way, which is joy in every moment, not just money."
Hill agreed, noting that Black children in Baltimore often are faced with a curriculum that fails to speak to their own history, depriving them of a rich vein from which to mine strategies for navigating the difficult urban environments of the city. "You have a lot of young people who want to live but are in survival mode," said Hill. "And their art reminds them of themselves and the fact that they can live."
YRI operates in Cherry Hill, a neighborhood that attracted Hill because of the warnings he had heard to avoid it. The warnings echoed sentiments he had often heard directed at his native East Cleveland, a place with its own challenges but one whose cultural resources introduced Hill to music.
Much as the culture of East Cleveland helped direct Hill's path, YRI uses culturally relevant art to draw upon the innate histories and talents that youth in Cherry Hill already possess. "We understood that there was a culture intact in Cherry Hill that wasn't being appreciated, recognized, or celebrated," said Hill, "and that there were and continue to be many lessons in Cherry Hill … that can really benefit Baltimore City if one takes the time to really listen, and to venture, to Cherry Hill."
The youth participating in YRI, ranging in age from five to 21, are taught to use their cultural heritage to pursue social change through the development of community arts organizing campaigns. One year, students created the Youth Kwanzaa Collective, a group that travels to different communities speaking about the history of Kwanzaa and how its themes, such as the centrality of family, are relevant year round.
YRI recently received a half million dollar grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, a private foundation that awards grants for efforts targeting vulnerable children, with an emphasis on reducing racial and class-based inequities, according to its website. The funds will launch the Journey Project, an initiative to open discussions between families, educators, policymakers, and advocates to facilitate greater opportunities for the success of low-income Black youth.
For Hill, Black youth who do not happen to live in a two-parent home are too often discussed as though not connected to any actual family structure at all, ignoring and, by implication, invalidating a broader network of family relations that can be part of a child's successful development. "To talk about young people and not talk about families in this sphere of influence is, yes, to objectify [those] young people and to disconnect them from a repository that they're able to draw strength from.
That affects the whole city, when you have young people who see themselves as not connected to any family structure," said Hill.