One day this February, five Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) students and a couple of adults walked into the Whittaker branch of the Ypsilanti District Library, looking to make a scene.
"We came in, all dressed in neon yellow, and as we walked up to the second floor, everyone turned their head to see this troupe of fluorescent kids walking through," says Yen Azzaro, co-organizer of a new youth performing arts initiative called Y-Fi, short for "Ypsi Fidelity."
The Y-Fi initiative, funded by a one-year "In Our Neighborhood" grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF), gives students opportunities to experience the performing arts, explore new spaces around Washtenaw County, and hone "soft skills" like creating connections with strangers and speaking in public.
Azzaro says the challenge for the students in their first ever public event, pre-arranged with library staff, was to create "visual sound" or to "create a spectacle in silence."
One student chased Azzaro's 6-year-old son Tai through the stacks. Another student lay on the floor pretending to talk loudly on a cell phone. One student did some shadow-boxing, while another pantomimed singing on a microphone.
After the event was captured on film, the kids were treated to food at the Beezy's cafe location inside the library.
"We regrouped and talked about the successes and challenges of producing something that could be disruptive but fun, that would make people turn their heads," Azzaro says. She says it was a good trial run that "gave us a sense of what was possible in a short amount of time."
Since that first foray, Y-Fi has grown to host about 19 students on a regular basis. They meet each Thursday after school, and on the fourth Thursday of each month they stage an interactive public event.
"The concept of Ypsi Fidelity is about teaching students that they have a voice and it's important to be heard, to follow through with honesty and quality in how their ideas are conveyed in the community and beyond," Azzaro says.
Creating memorable experiences
Y-Fi has so far produced two more events since its public debut at the library. One of the most challenging events for the students was their second, which took place at the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student center. The event was called "Éclat," meaning "brilliant display or effect."
Y-Fi participants had to step out of their comfort zones and ask people passing through the student center to participate in an exercise in challenging stereotypes. First, participants were asked to write down on a whiteboard something they think others would be surprised to learn about them. Then participants had their photographs taken in a dramatic lighting setup.
"When they looked at the photos, what they saw was unexpected," Azzaro says. "The photo was taken in a bright, open environment in the student center, but the result was a very dark, moody, dramatic photo."
Y-Fi's latest event was a twist on the classic kids' game of Red Rover with a theme of "breaking barriers." The event took place Thursday, April 25, in the YCHS parking lot.
In a classic Red Rover game, kids split into two teams and hold hands in a line. One team calls over a member of the opposite team, and if that person bursts the barrier of interlocked hands, they get to take someone from the opposing team back with them to their side. If they can't break through, they stay.
In Y-Fi's version, instead of trying to physically break through the barrier, the visitor from the opposing team was challenged to answer a personal question like "What is my favorite color?" or "What is my shoe size?" from someone on the team they were trying to "break through." If they got the answer right, they got to choose someone to bring back to their original team.
Despite the overcast afternoon turning chilly with a sprinkle of rain, the event drew the interest of a few YCHS students who weren't involved in Y-Fi, as well as a family who learned of the event on Facebook.
In conjunction with the Red Rover event, each Y-Fi member was asked to write down a barrier they wanted to break by the end of the program in June, and the slips of paper were shared anonymously with participants.
Some of the responses were heartbreaking, and Azzaro says they likely won't be overcome by June. One reads: "Everywhere I go, I feel judged, so I am trying to not care about what others say."
New skills and success
Although Y-Fi is still relatively new, it's already had positive effects for participating students. Jhanira Smith, an 18-year-old senior, says she appreciates that Y-Fi allows her to use some of her skills as an artist, and it's also helped expose her to other students she might not have otherwise spoken to.
"I've learned to communicate better," she says. "Normally I'm very shy and sit in a corner by myself. I've met a few friends I wouldn't have noticed otherwise because I'm pretty introverted."
Ariana Milliner, a 17-year-old junior at YCHS, says she's also benefited from the way Y-Fi's second and third events required her to take initiative to reach out and ask strangers to participate.
"It helped me feel more comfortable talking in front of people," Milliner says.
All Y-Fi participants are also part of EMU's Bright Futures program, and EMU intern and sociology major La'Shanay Mack is helping the students build soft skills. For instance, when the kids came back from spring break, Mack led them in an exercise meant to make them more comfortable introducing themselves to strangers. Mack says she makes sure to talk to the kids about their lives each week, asking if they're feeling pressure about tests or telling them they're looking good that day.
"I'm helping make sure everyone is on point and focused, and they're getting everything they need," she says.
Nick Azzaro, Yen Azzaro's husband and Y-Fi co-organizer, says the students have begun to identify closely with the program, wearing their eye-catching hoodies, hats, and pants with the Y-Fi logo around school even on days that the group doesn't meet.
He says many of the students are shy or nervous about publicity or being around big groups of strangers, but they have continued to rise to the challenge.
"If you put them into a new environment, they swim," he says.
Y-Fi will continue producing spontaneous art happenings and scripted non-traditional art
events monthly through June, resuming with the start of the 2019-2020 school year. They'll also do a special performance at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival's annex tent July 3. A Y-Fi book launch and art exhibition is also set for fall 2019. Grant funding runs through December 2019, and Yen Azzaro says she is hoping the AAACF will renew funding for a second year of the program.
To learn more about and see photos of past events, visit the Y-Fi website and blog. To keep tabs on future happenings, watch the group's Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.