Y-Fi youth social art movement adapts to COVID by building community partnerships in Ypsi

COVID-19 forced the young people in Y-Fi, an Ypsilanti-based social art initiative for youth, to cancel their plans to create a multi-sensory experiential art museum. But the group has built and deepened relationships during the pandemic, both among its own members and with community organizations including Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Bright Futures program and ypsiGLOW.


When the pandemic put an end to Y-Fi's MicroMuseum project at the former Willow Run High School earlier this year, money from a student fundraiser and a grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation was instead used to create take-home art kits for participating students, says Y-Fi co-founder Yen Azzaro.

Y-Fi members met on March 4, not realizing it would be the last time they'd see each other for the 2019-2020 school year.

Each student received an iPad, keyboard, lighting, writing supplies, a ring light for taking selfies, a pink fur backdrop, snacks, and other supplies so that about a dozen students could continue to make art from home. Each month since May, students received a prompt to create some kind of collaborative art project. One of those was an audiovisual swap project called "Pass It On."


"I asked them to find faces or textures around their home and film 30 seconds. Then they'd send it to the next person to add sound," Azzaro says.


Azzaro says she and her husband and Y-Fi co-founder Nick Azzaro originally intended Y-Fi to include "mentoring, educating students about performance art, and an opportunity to learn some soft skills, go on field trips, try new foods, and meet new people."

Nick and Yen Azzaro.

"Now, looking back, describing it is harder than I thought going into it," she says. "When the kids talk about it, it gets me teared up because they talk about how we've become a family and rely on each other so much for getting through emotional times, cheering each other up, and having fun."


Y-Fi's current project is getting ready for ypsiGLOW on Oct. 23 and related events. In addition to creating glow-in-the-dark art for the annual nighttime parade through downtown Ypsi, Y-Fi is producing a short clip for ypsiGLOW's "GLOW TV" video program. ypsiGLOW will partner with EMU to present "GLOW TV," which includes a 30-second "drumline" introduction made by Y-Fi participants, during one of EMU's drive-in movie nights on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. in the parking lot of the EMU Convocation Center.


In the past, ypsiGLOW kicked off with a drumline headed by now-retired Ypsilanti Community High School art teacher Lynne Settles, with youth playing a drumbeat on buckets. Jennifer Goulet, ypsiGLOW executive director, says the young people would pick a new routine and music each year to be the event's "opening act."


"This year, we obviously can't gather as a community in the same way, but the Y-Fi kids are excited to have the opportunity to pre-record a drum opening, synchronized, via Zoom as part of the kickoff for 'GLOW TV,'" Goulet says.


Azzaro says a local percussionist created a 30-second video of a drum cadence, and students will recreate the beat with neon drumsticks, Y-Fi gear, and black light, creating a 30-second segment to open "GLOW TV."


Goulet says partnering with Y-Fi was a natural fit because both initiatives focus on nurturing creatives, artists, and makers in Ypsilanti.


"The opportunity through programs like Y-Fi, to have local artists so committed to mentoring young artists and helping them envision the possibilities of a creative pathway and what that does for the future of our community here, is incredibly powerful," Goulet says. "We say that creativity is our greatest superpower, so the opportunity to help kids put that into action is important."


All Y-Fi participants are also part of EMU's Bright Futures program. Lynn Malinoff, Bright Futures director, says Y-Fi's goal of amplifying youth voices is "right up [Bright Futures'] alley."


"Some projects go broad and reach a lot of youth," Malinoff says. "And some projects go deep. They reach fewer youth but are more focused. Y-Fi went very deep with a few young adults."


Grant funding for Y-Fi runs out in December but the group could continue on in some form under the umbrella of Bright Futures, Yen Azzaro says. Unsure about funding and the future of Y-Fi's performance art events in the age of social distancing, Azzaro gave Bright Futures a handbook of projects adapted from past Y-Fi events so they can be conducted virtually for the time being. The handbook contains instructions for several projects and a short list of supplies.


"If there's a way to make Y-Fi one of our traditional [club] programs and carry this on from year to year, then that is a goal. We'll try to set it up so it can continue," Malinoff says.


A video overview of Y-Fi projects done during the pandemic can be found here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Nick and Yen Azzaro photo by Doug Coombe. All other photos courtesy of Yen Azzaro.