Boston Teens Gather to Talk Arts, Activism, and Social Change

“‘Woke’ means to have a moral center. It’s the idea that you care about others. It’s to be selfless, and to think about people other than yourself,” said Alexis Maxwell, a junior at Boston Arts Academy, at a weekly Teen Council meeting hosted by the Boch Center.

The Boch Center, a non-profit organization focused on the arts, brings together 15-30 students multiple times per week for Teen Council meetings, which focus on discussions of social justice issues, lessons on job readiness skills, and collaboration on artistic projects for social change. It pays Teen Council members minimum wage for meetings that occur three times per week and for up to 25 hours in total.

This week, with teens across America raising their voices in public forums to condemn gun violence, the Teen Council meeting gave high schoolers from Boston an opportunity to share their views.

“Activism is very much needed right now,” said Maxwell. “And I also think activism is more than just getting on social media and talking about issues. A lot of people can complain about something—they can be mad about how something certain is.  Being an activist is being upset about something and doing something about it. Trying to change it.”

As members of the Teen Council spend much of their meeting time engaging in conversation with each other, moderated by adults, they learn to clarify their explanations of ideas.

“I think a lot of people will go to protests, wear all the protest gear, and then if they hear a friend say something that’s sexist or homophobic or racist, they won’t correct it. I think some people say being an activist is fun, but sometimes it’s not fun. Being an activist is an all-the-time job, it’s a 24/7 job. You always have to be woke,” said Maxwell.

The adults that ran a recent Teen Council meeting, which was also part of the Boch Center’s Youth Arts for Social Change Summit, asked students to discuss the meaning of terms like “advocacy,” “taxes” and “public goods.”

Students supplied these definitions, while also interpreting other language they engage with among their peers.

“When you’re ‘woke’ is when you understand how things actually are,” said JoJo Vasquez, a junior at Boston Latin Academy. “‘Things’ can be something as simple as hair. That’s a thing I have a struggle with—Euro-centric features. My mother used to love straightening my hair because back then, her idea was that straighter hair was more aesthetically pleasing. It’s things like that—woke is people accepting who they are.”

The job readiness skills that the Teen Council programming teaches also impact Vasquez.

“Teen Council helps me learn skills as an older sibling. I have seven younger siblings. In the neighborhood I live in, there’s a lot of gun violence. So I give my siblings information about what certain things mean, and also ideas about things they want to pursue in their life. I inform them about social issues and taboos. I show them these are all things in society, so that they have a choice, and can create their own stories,” she said.

The organization also offers opportunities for members they might otherwise miss.

“There are clubs at my school, but only some of them pertain to social activism. I know there’s a club for immigration reform. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to participate in those because of my responsibilities at home,” said Vasquez.

Like Maxwell, Vasquez learned about the Teen Council from a friend that participated in a Boch Center program, and recommended it for its focus on art and social change.

The program accepts over half of its applicants each year, and advertises to students at high school job fairs.

At a recent meeting, as part of the Youth Arts for Social Change Summit, the Boch Center brought in representatives from various organizations to speak with the Teen Council for the second half of its meeting.

The organizations represented at the job fair included MASSCreative, Teen Empowerment, Institute of Contemporary Art, Urbano Project, Victory Generation, IBA – Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, YouthBuild Boston, Pride Youth Theatre Alliance, Hyde Square Task Force, Urbanity Dance, New England Aquarium, and the Boston Public Library – Dudley Sq.

The Teen Council’s next major event will be the Boch Center’s City Spotlights Final Showcase, which brings together students from each of its programs for a performance of their creative work at the Wang Theater, on April 24.

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