Blog: Megan Miller

Megan Miller is the director of programs at Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, an award-winning non-profit whose mission is to empower young people to maximize their potential through professional performing arts training and the creation of high-quality theatrical and musical art.  Under her leadership, Mosaic grew from serving 230 youth through First Stage programs in '03-'04 to over 1,000 youth in '05-'06.  She developed Mosaic's first comprehensive training program for First Stage staff based on best practices in youth development and the Mosaic Model of Youth Development through the Arts.  As a Mosaic alumna ('93-'97), Megan knows first hand the transformative power of Mosaic's programs and is thrilled to be part of an organization working hard to make a difference in the lives of Detroit area youth. 

Megan is a proud alumna of Cass Tech High School and Oberlin College.   After completing her BA, she taught French in the Detroit Public Schools, first at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies (FLICS) School and later at Sherrard Middle School.  She sought to create opportunities for students to experience the performing arts; starting a theatre and dance program for students at FLICS and organizing a cultural-artistic exchange for the Mosaic Singers to Senegal, West Africa in 2003.  After moving abroad to study dance in Paris, France, Megan returned to Detroit to work at Mosaic. 

She was selected as an Emerging Leader for the Bank of America Neighborhood Excellence Leadership Program in 2009 and is a graduate of the New Detroit Multicultural Leadership Series.  She is an active volunteer with the teen group at her church, Renaissance Unity.
Megan lives with her husband and four year-old daughter.  She enjoys running, sewing and watching Dinosaur Train and Sid the Science Kid with her daughter.

Megan Miller - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Service Works

Every year, usually in the fall, Mosaic organizes an annual event called Perform-A-Thon to foster a commitment to community service amongst the young people in our programs.  Young artists, parents and staff wake up early to meet at Mosaic for a rally and then quickly split up into groups of about twelve to fifteen.  We fan out over Metro Detroit and spend the rest of the day performing for audiences who might not otherwise get to experience live music or theatre; for people living in adult care facilities, nursing homes, half-way houses, homeless shelters and juvenile detention centers.  This year we did about 40 performances for local audiences on a single Saturday in November; in past years that number has been as high as 80.  Perform-a-thon is a herculean task for the organizers, performers and chaperones, but we do it year after year because of the impact it has on everyone involved.

The first time I ever participated in Perform-A-Thon was as a young artist.  I was a freshman at Cass Tech and had only been in the company for about a week after having been recently promoted from one of Mosaic's outreach programs.  At the first rehearsal I ever attended I was thrown into a skit being created by some of the other young artists, Matt, F. Scott, and Darlane.  I played a famous singer who was about to be unmasked as a fake.  During the skit I lip synched "The Greatest Love of All" while F. Scott sang backstage, interrupting the song with "intercepted" commercial announcements, conversations from air control, etc.  The day of Perform-A-Thon was a tremendous bonding experience; the company drove, laughed and performed together all over town.  The highlight of the day, however, was our final performance at the juvenile detention center.

As a kid, I did not know anyone in jail, had never visited a prison, and did not know any people my own age who were in the court system.  When I found out we were going to be performing at juvenile hall, I didn't know what to expect and I was scared.  We arrived after a full day of performances right after sunset.  Most of us were nervous because we had been warned that this could be a tough audience – but that you could really be proud if you won them over.  

Our nervous energy came out in different ways as we walked through the courtyard of the facility. Some of us were stone-faced and silent; I played secret agent with a few other company members.  We were lead through a maze of sterile hallways and asked to remain completely quiet so that we could be buzzed in at various points.  Finally we stood outside of the gym where we would be performing.  We could hear the boisterous audience inside.  The door opened and we filed in as a sea of guys wearing jumpsuits turned to watch us, cat call, laugh and point.  

Company members performed a song and one skit while the audience talked and loudly assessed our work.  The guards tried to quiet everyone down, but I think the audience was as excited as we were to be there.  It was time for my group's skit.  I felt blood rush to my face as my hands went cold.  Matt played the announcer and introduced my character from the stage before I stepped out to lip synch.  The cat calling continued – and then we got a laugh.  F. Scott kept working his improvised vocal magic backstage (think Robin Williams if he was a black teenager from Detroit), and the audience stopped talking to listen, and laugh.  We got 'em.

Our group took a bow and I remember noticing my arms and hands quiver as I sat down.  I looked out over the audience and for the first time really saw individual faces.  Then I looked at Matt.  In the van ride over he had told me that he thought he knew some of the kids we would be performing for at juvenile hall.  The long day, the beauty and randomness of life hit me.  I couldn't speak as we made our way back through the courtyard to our vans.  

Driving the young artists on Perform-A-Thon this fall and then reading their testimonials afterwards reaffirmed for me the power of connecting your passion and talent to community service.  Here are a couple of fresh perspectives on the event:

  • During Perform-A-Thon we went to Special Tree. Almost everyone there was in a wheelchair. There was one man in the audience who seemed to particularly enjoy the show. At the end he was cheering, and giving us all high fives. As we left he told each one of us we deserved 2 million dollars. It was absolutely incredible to see that our work could give someone so much joy.
  • The best moment of Perform-A-Thon was the last performance at the Wayne County JD Center. After I left my cousin called me to say how these young guys I knew saw me, also my  late brother's best friend. She was saying how they were happy I had made it this far. The sad thing about it is out of the eight I know they are all just as talented or even better than me.
  • My favorite part of the day was when we went to one of the nursing homes. This man named Dave couldn't get out of his bed.  Sydni along with our choir sang "I'll be there" to him. He must've been paralyzed because he couldn't really move a lot to let us know he liked it. The movement of his hands as a response seemed to be enough to reach us and bring tears to all our eyes. We didn't take that moment for granted. We let this emotional moment fill the room with joy and happiness, tears and memories. That moment will be forever cherished. That was by far the best experience I have had in my life.
Some people make the argument that art is superfluous when people are striving to meet more basic needs.  My experiences during Perform-A-Thon have taught me otherwise.  Art can be a shared gift that creates a connection where none existed only a moment before, and can help cultivate the spirit of service that will transform our city.

Post 2: Young Detroiters Say...

In my first blog I mentioned some of the annual events that we organize at Mosaic to broaden the world view of our young artists.  In this blog, I'm going to share some reflections on these experiences from young artists and alumni.

Last week a group of 40 young artists traveled to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, D.C., and Ohio on our annual College Tour.  During the tour young artists toured the campuses of Penn State, Howard, Carnegie Mellon, Yale, and NYU, talked to professors and students, performed for community audiences and had a lot of fun.  Here is what a few of our young artists had to say about the experience:

"It meant a lot and was a really good experience.  I had only been to Michigan and Tennessee.  My mom said that I came back a different person and more disciplined.  I used to take like an hour getting ready for school, and now I can do it in like fifteen minutes!...I didn't like New York, but D.C. was a more relaxing.  I learned that gratuity is high in other places – it was like eighteen percent! And I have never seen so many people in my entire life!  In Times Square there was an emergency or something and there was a police officer on a horse!  I would have never thought to put a policeman on a horse…Before I went I was really sure that I wanted to do social work, but I learned that I'm not sure about my whole life style.  You can be a photographer, or do drama therapy instead of just doing social work.  I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but this expanded my vision." --Mumford Junior

"Well, of course it was an eye opening and life changing experience…It was the first time I had ever been to the east coast.  I had only been with my family to Michigan and Ohio, and down South.  The cities were beautiful and welcoming.  I feel like I got to see something of our country…Before I kind of knew that I wanted to do theatre in college.  Now this is definite and that was reassuring.  I got firsthand experience doing something I love and it was what I expected and more.  The professors really helped me get out of my comfort zone…I got to travel and do workshops and it was like a once in a lifetime experience except then I realized that Mosaic was going to do this again next year!" --DSA Sophomore

"I had never left Michigan.  I’m different, and at NYU I felt like I belonged there.  It made me feel like I could fit in and that I could make friends.  I just want to expand and let people hear my voice." --Oak Park High Sophomore

As a Mosaic alumna myself, I can testify to the fact that as impactful as these kinds of experiences are in the moment, they reverberate through your life in a way that you often don't become fully conscious of until much later.  For this reason I wanted to include a quote from a Mosaic alumnus who can share a more seasoned perspective.  Ben Williams not only went on several College Tours during his time at Mosaic, he also travelled to Senegal, West Africa in 2003 on an artistic-cultural exchange with the African Roots Choir of Dakar.  Ben also happens to be nominated as one of Crain's Detroit Business 20 in their 20 for 2011.  Here is what Ben has to say about the experience:

"College tour made me realize what we could do in two years.  It made me realize that I had options and that I wasn’t just confined to being a singer; I could do lots of other things and still include my artistic skills.  Senegal made me think long-term.   It helped me to push the envelope as a leader and see what I was capable of.  It is one thing to be a leader in Detroit, it is another to be a leader of a group of young people in a foreign country.  I realized how large the world is and how universal art is…being able to share things with people in another country made me realize the greater role that we play as artist, the importance of people and even what it means to be an American.  We possess the power to do so many things and what I do here in Detroit can affect someone on another continent.  That experience led me to travel abroad more; it was my first time on another continent and in a developing country that wasn’t as technologically advanced as where I am from.  It gave me permission to do more things.   Senegal was a spiritual stretch too, it was a test of faith.  I had to pray a lot before, during and after.  It contributed to my growing into manhood and being able to more constructively handle things in life.  That experience strengthened and conditioned me to be ready for the life and career I am in now." --Ben Williams

Ben Williams is a recent graduate of Wayne State's undergraduate theatre program.  While studying at Wayne State, he was selected to travel to Greece and Russia.  With guidance from faculty and staff at the university and the Moscow Art Theatre, Ben developed the Creative Research Project: Stanislaviski Technique as Applied Theatre for Youth Empowerment and created an intensive curriculum for students participating in Mosaic's First Stage program at University Preparatory High School in Detroit. Ben is also the Director of the Artist Mentorship Program and management assistant at the Arts League of Michigan.  He is committed to making a significant contribution to the revitalization of Detroit through the arts.

I hope these quotes inspire you and give you a deeper understanding of why opportunities that expand the world view of young Detroiters are so important to the fulfillment of a new vision for our city.  In my next blog, I am going to explore another important ingredient to youth development in Detroit: fostering a spirit of service.

Post 1: Why Young Detroiters Should Get Out of the City

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 living in the Metro Detroit area is familiar by now with the rhetoric: Young professionals are leaving the state in record numbers!  We need to do more to keep recent college graduates in Michigan!  I agree we need to continue to re-invent our city to attract and retain young professionals, but I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about why it is also vital that we make sure that young Detroiters have the opportunity to experience life outside of the metro area.

At Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, we serve youth from all over the city; we have program sites in the North end, on the east-side and in southwest Detroit, and also draw youth from the suburbs.  Through their passion for the performing arts, diverse groups of young people come together to create strong ensembles.  Talking to the young artists for the past six years I consistently hear comments like, "I had never met anyone from the east-side," or "I didn’t know there were Latino kids in Detroit."  Many of our young artists have never been exposed to people or life in different areas of the city, let alone in Chicago, Toronto or New York.  

Why is this significant?  Part of Metro Detroit's legacy is that we are one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.  If our next generation of citizens and leaders do not have a concept of the diversity of the metro area, nor what it feels like to live in a thriving city, this may limit their ability to imagine and contribute to the transformation of Detroit.

I was born and raised in an upper middle-class family on the northwest side.  I went to Detroit Public Schools, experienced the wonders this city has to offer, and was taught from an early age to be proud of my roots in this community.  Trips with my family to Chicago, DC and New Orleans, however, were instructive. Riding on the subway, observing large numbers of pedestrians on the sidewalks and experiencing café culture, gave me a sense of the bustle and energy of a flourishing city.  I remember having conversations with my father during these trips about how things were different in Detroit, and starting to ask the question,"Why?"  And later, "What can I do about it?"

Equally edifying were my experiences competing in national science fairs while studying at Cass Tech.  The Detroit delegation to the annual event would usually meet at Country Day to review logistics for the trip.  I remember seeing the neatly trimmed sports fields, the labs of wood and polished metal, and talking to my friends about their matriculation.  It made me aware of the differences in resources and expectations students experienced depending on where they went to school, and it made me want to give back to the next generation of Detroit students.  

Living abroad in Paris was elucidating in a different way.  Young people were often excited when I told them that I was from Detroit because they were eager to talk about our electronic music scene.  Before Paris, I honestly had no idea that we had a world-class electronic music scene.  Learning through friends about the wonderful things coming out of my home town increased my pride and desire to explore Detroit.

Many young Detroiters do not have these kinds of opportunities.  Some of the young people I have met through Mosaic have limited experience outside of their neighborhood – whether their neighborhood is on the east-side, southwest side or in the suburbs.  I believe this has an impact on our ability to move forward as a community.  Whatever you see, hear, taste or otherwise experience on a daily basis becomes your "normal"; shaping your expectations of life and yourself.  

We have a lot happening in Metro Detroit right now from greening projects to public transportation along the Woodward corridor to sweeping school reform to the reinvention of our economic engine.  One of our biggest battles, however, is with our own cynicism and resignation.  To win this battle, we must cultivate our capacity to envision and believe in a brighter future, and our willingness to contribute toward the realization of this vision.  Young people have an important role to play in this endeavor.  If you are reading this blog, more than likely you are already actively engaged in re-inventing Metro Detroit.  What are you doing to bring a young person or group of young people in to this effort?  

At Mosaic, we help young people make meaningful connections with peers around the city and in the suburbs through rigorous training in their passion – the performing arts.  We expose them to new experiences that expand their vision of what is possible by making them aware of opportunities to develop themselves outside of Mosaic, and by organizing trips to perform, work with guest artists, and tour colleges and universities.  Last week alone, a group of 40 young artists travelled to Pennsylvania, New York, D.C. and Ohio on our annual College Tour; two more young artists travelled to D.C. to meet Barry Gordy, tour the White House and participate in a panel discussion about the enduring impact of Motown; and the Singers who remained in Detroit performed four times at Henry Ford Museum.  We also teach our young artists to give back through events like Perform-A-Thon, in which youth spend the day performing at homeless shelters, youth detention centers and nursing homes.

This week I'll be blogging about the impact of these experiences and sharing a few quotes from the young artists themselves.  In the meantime, I encourage you to identify what you can do to expand the world view or cultivate the spirit of service of a young Metro Detroiter.

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