Raising voices. One story at a time. That’s the goal of Independent Sector member Young Storytellers, an arts education nonprofit. Rooted in the power of story, Young Storytellers, among the IS members supported by the AT&T Foundation, empowers youth in elementary through high school to feel that their voices and stories matter, present themselves with self-confidence, and use storytelling to explore their creativity and imagination. The program also encourages young people to focus on their goals for the future and challenges they may face, and consider how their voice might impact their communities and the world.
From its informal beginning in 1997, Young Storytellers sought to fulfill a need in schools for arts education. “We saw that arts education was not being brought to young people, and we wanted to do our part to fill that need by going into schools and providing this storytelling program,” says Development and Engagement Director Jaylene Chung.
“Now schools have really built up arts education, and we’ve seen that we have a role to play in helping kids with their social and emotional learning skills — soft skills like collaborating with others, feeling more self-confident, building relationships to people, and also integrating social justice standards into our curriculum.”
Young Storytellers engages some 2,000 volunteers a year, including mentors and actors. The nonprofit has programs in 60 schools across the country, operating primarily in Los Angeles, but also in San Francisco, Denver, Little Rock, New York City, and in Akron in Lebron James’ I PROMISE School.
Like Independent Sector, Young Storytellers has become more intentional regarding racial justice over the years, as Chung explains, “integrating social justice standards into our curriculum on all levels. We also do exploration in the programs for all of the students to really think about their backgrounds, their cultural identities, where they come from.
“We have been very intentionally trying to diversify our actors and our mentors because we think it’s really important for our students to see themselves reflected in every part of the organization – volunteers, board, and donors. And we’re undergoing a new process with integrating antiracism and equity into our fundraising practices, which has been a fun project for me to see how we can do that.”
The nonprofit’s programs include Script to Stage, which places students with an adult mentor to write scripts that are entirely their own, and includes actors who perform the scripts for the students and their peers live at a virtual show; Collaborative Stories, on the foundation of Script to Stage, but that facilitates more teamwork as writers work together to tell a story through large group sessions guided by one to two mentors, then watch professional actors bring the stories to life; and Day of Story, a one-day, in-school workshop that pairs mentors one-on-one with fourth-grade students to help them create their own story outline along with a descriptive poster.
Programs also include WM Story Lab, developed in partnership with Warner Media and Los Angeles schools’ Arts Education Branch and Division of Instruction, which delivers original curriculum to sixth-grade middle school students focused on storytelling skills while reinforcing confidence, empathy, and personal voice; Middle School Monologues, where middle-school students work collaboratively with a group mentor to create monologues about challenges they face and then work with actors who perform those pieces; and High School PSAs, where high school students write public service announcements to address important issues facing their self-identified communities, with actors performing their work.
With the pandemic, Young Storytellers has had to adjust their programs, and not unexpectedly, it’s been a challenge to administer programs virtually over Zoom.
“We’ve shifted our program to be called Collaborative Stories, where we have the kids work virtually in small groups on the same story,” Chung said. “That helps with attendance, which has been kind of tricky this last year.
“We even still have performances over Zoom, so actors have come in, and they’ll perform in their little boxes. But they actually liked it, and it translates really well.”
Young Storytellers is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that highlights young people as the center of their own narratives, emphasizes that their stories matter, and celebrates their unique voices as the ones telling them. The top photograph is by Brandon Moningka and courtesy of Young Storytellers. Learn about other Independent Sector members and becoming a member.