Everyone has an inner artist.
That's if you ask those working with Express Yourself Milwaukee, an organization that has been bringing arts to low-income and at-risk kids for the past 15 years.
At a classroom at Bethune Academy on 35th and Cherry, kids first shuffle into their after-school session with Express Yourself. They come from different backgrounds, experiences, and mindsets. The artists corral them with a simple call and response. "Ago-Ame," it's said to be a West African tradition.
The kids are receptive. The artists then use a countdown to focus the energy of the room.
Today, the first-ever Express Yourself ukulele group is getting ready to practice its finale song. It’s an original piece by local musician John Sieger called: “I am a Dolphin.” The kids learned how to read ukulele chords and sing at the same time. Artist Dena Aronson came up with the idea for a ukulele group and teaches the group. She and Cree, one of the 5th grade ukulele performers, talk about what it’s like to perform together.
The conversation goes like this:
“They’re enthusiastic. I mean they’re kids. They’re magic, right? Kids are always teaching you something new,” says Aronson.
Cree is asked, "do you feel like you're magic?"
"Nooooo..." she says.
"Well, I do," laughs Aronson.
But then Cree is asked, "do you feel like you’re magic when you’re playing ukulele?”
She smiles and says "yes."
Bringing the magic out of kids is what Express Yourself does best.
Cammie Griffin is a performer with nationally touring STOMP and an Express Yourself dance instructor who comes to work with the kids a few times during the year. She says, "people don’t realize, but everyone has a rhythm.You’re born with a rhythm. Your heartbeat is a rhythm. Even if you feel that you’re not a dancer, or you can’t keep a beat, there’s something artistic about you in some way, and Express Yourself pulls that out.”
Cammie is now over at the Express Yourself studio on W. Fond du Lac Ave where she runs through a choreography medley with some students. One student, Xavier, is particularly enthusiastic about Cammie’s routine. He's a 4th grader who says his mom enrolled him in Express Yourself so that he wouldn’t be playing video games or in the streets roaming around. “I can just come here and be away from the nonsense," he says. "So, I appreciate that a lot.”
Express Yourself works with kids in schools, in afterschool programs, at the Express Yourself studio, and in detention or youth prisons. Each year, more than 1,100 young people between the ages of 7-21 participate in the program.
Artist and coordinator Holly Haebig says she sees them learn lessons a simple as making eye contact and speaking up--- to developing leadership skills. "All these life skills through the arts. It’s so very powerful," she says. "When you hold these high standards up to children, they always will rise to the occasion if you stick with them. And that is so powerful to me.
The kids spend all year making art in preparation for a final performance, which takes place on Thursday at the Miller High Life Theater. The theme of the performance is “Move It!” and Express Yourself leaders explain that the objectives of “Move It” are to help people become engaged, make positive change in their communities, and move their ideas into solutions.