On November 15, the ceremony for the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards was held at the White House for the eighth and final time. The program was a watershed project of the Obama administration, meant to recognize outstanding extracurricular programs that enrich and transform the lives of young people. Each of the 12 annual recipients received a $10,000 grant, and a full year of capacity-building and communications support.
With the Obama administration coming to a close, and so much uncertainty about what the incoming Trump administration will bring to the table, not much was openly said about the future of programs from the president’s Committee of Arts and the Humanities. But First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been instrumental in the support of this program, still put forth a message of hope and inclusivity in her opening statements;
“We are a country that believes in our young people- all of them. We believe that every single child has boundless promise, no matter who they are, where they come from, or how much money their parents have. We’ve gotta remember that. We believe that each of these young people is a vital part of the great American story,” she said.
“It is important to our continued greatness to see these kids as ours. Not as ‘them.’ Not as ‘other.’ But as ours. Because we want them to know that if they’re willing to work for it- and so many are, that they can be anything they want. That’s what this country is about and we can never forget that. These kids are ours. And that’s really the power of programs like these. That’s the message that they send to our young people every single day.”
Among those honored was Boston-based True Colors: OUT Youth Theatre, the longest running LGBTQ youth theatre program in the country. Of the 3,000 programs that have applied for these Awards and the 100 programs that have been honored over the past eight years, this is the first time a LGBTQ organization has won the award.
Evelyn Francis, Director of Programs at True Colors, says that the twenty-two year old program works with over 150 young people directly each year, and reaches an audience of nearly four thousand members.
Trae Weekes, an 18-year old member of True Colors, accepted the award with Evelyn at the White House. She joined True Colors three years ago, at age 15.
“I had just come out as a lesbian,” Trae told DC Theatre Scene. “I didn’t know exactly what I was identifying with, or what it meant to be a lesbian. Not that there’s any guidelines to it, just that I didn’t have any experience with same sex couples my entire life. . . they gave me a community where I could get those answers that I couldn’t get from anybody else. “
Evelyn Francis said that sort of response isn’t uncommon for kids who join True Colors. “In true colors there are a lot of folks like Trae . . . it’s the first time they’ve really talked with other people who are LGBTQ and heard their experiences. And we’re talking about young people really at the intersections of their identities.”
The youth in True Colors are made up of a diverse cross-section of LGBTQ individuals from all backgrounds. Over a third are first-generation Americans, or part of immigrant families. The majority are youth of color. Many come from low income backgrounds, or neighborhoods with high incidences of violence. Many have been or are currently homeless.
“It means that people can meet at these intersections of their identities and talk about so much of their work.” says Evelyn.
It’s that important intersection of identity, art, and personal growth that the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards hopes to recognize, and the theme that the First Lady emphasized repeatedly in her remarks.
“To anyone who still somehow doubts the power of the arts to transform students’ lives- to any who still isn’t completely convinced, I just urge you to find one of these students and talk to them. They’re here today, but they’re not just here. They’re all over the country. They’re in communities everywhere,” Michelle Obama said.
As President-Elect Donald Trump steps into the Presidency this Janaury, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) , and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will likely all see new directors, and new budgets. It’s impossible at this time to predict what that will look like.
Looking out at the uncertain future of the next four years is a difficult place for the organizations honored by the NAHYP Awards, and the youth that they serve. For True Colors, having their hard work, strength, and perseverance honored at the White House was a huge step in igniting the passion to keep going.
“[The award] feels like a real acknowledgment of all the suffering and struggle that I’ve been through, that young people have been through, and that other staff and community members have been through. It’s a real representation that we’ve come very far. We’ve got a long way to go, and the fight isn’t over, so this is day one for us. And what does the rest of our lives look like? We don’t know, but day one starts now.” Evelyn Francis said.
Michelle Obama encouraged everyone in the room to keep their chin up as they look towards the future, urging: “Don’t ever lose hope. Don’t ever feel fear. You belong here.”