My City, My Voice Fosters Teen Artistic Expression

My City, My VoicePhoto courtesy of My City, My Voice.

“In the year 2222, Cambridge will be below sea level. Let’s reimagine what the Charles River area is going to be like.” 

That was one piece of inspiration behind last year’s artwork for My City, My Voice, a six-week teen summer arts program, according to Teen Program Director Kenny Mascary.

We are sitting at a round table in a quiet-ish corner of the Gately Youth Center, but we can still hear the hum and chatter of teens and kids working on projects. 

Moments earlier, a young girl led me through the many rooms of the Youth Center (a two-story building on Rindge Avenue), including a computer lab, a “hang space” with a pool table, a weights room, an enormous gymnasium, and the arts and crafts room where most of the summer programming is held. 

It’s clear that I’ve crash-landed into a teenage dream turned reality. But back to the art.

Director Robert Limbo began My City, My Voice (lovingly abbreviated “MCMV”) 12 years ago as an outlet for local teens. 

“It was a program that was designed to provide artistic options, and it was also tied in with a lot of community violence,” explains Mascary. MCMV provides a safe space for teens affected by local violence to express themselves, and also helps steer teens who may engage in “toxic” behavior, as Mascary calls it, toward a positive pursuit. 

Every summer, they assemble 20 Cambridge teens to channel their energies through art. MCMV has done “a lot of healing work for the community, especially the young people,” says Mascary.

And channel they do. Each summer, high schoolers create poetry, paintings, installations—you name it—all based around a single theme. 

“Last year, the theme was Afro-futurism and reimagining the City of Cambridge through the lens of Science Fiction, using the movie Black Panther,” explains Mascary. 

What does that mean? Based on the artwork displayed around the small arts and crafts room, it means self-portraits, collages, and poetry based on identity.

“We’ve been pretty open-ended as far as the different things we’ve encouraged young people to produce,” Mascary says.  

It’s true—students are not told what to make or how to make it. In fact, they aren’t given much instruction at all. 

“All they really said for directions was present a piece of art that relates to the theme,” explains Tyler Melendez, a recent high school graduate who attended MCMV for the past five summers. 

That’s not to say MCMV doesn’t support their budding artists. Teens are paired with an adult mentor who specializes in the art form they’ve chosen, like Mascary, who is a DJ. 

Not only are teens exposed to multi-talented mentors, but they also get to engage with various types of art through their peers. “It was pretty cool to meet other artists like me,” says Melendez. “It was also great to see which forms of art they’re good at, because we’re all artists in different ways.”

If there isn’t a mentor who specializes in a teen’s chosen medium, MCMV will find someone. “We say, ‘You’re telling your story, and whatever medium you’re most comfortable with sharing that story, we will provide you with that outlet,” Mascary promises. “If one of the people in this room is not capable of assisting you, I will find a partner or a colleague that has expertise.” 

For each project, the MCMV team uses their connections with local artists and educators to help inspire and promote the teens’ works. And teens are a big part of that process.

“We encourage young people and the staff to come up with partners or relationships that they have within the community that fits our theme,” Mascary says. “Last year, around Afro-futurism, we’re thinking about how can we work with MIT? How can we work with a fabric store that sells African print? How can we work with any Afro-diaspora restaurant?”

You’d think by throwing students into the world with only the instruction ‘Make!’ disaster could ensue, but the works hanging in the arts and crafts room tell a different story. 

Mascary directs me to self-portrait collage a student created for the Afro-futurism theme, named the “Goddess of WaCambridge.” Her Afro is made from several magazine photo cutouts of different shades of hair, she has real jewelry attached to her face and ears, and wears actual fabric clothes. 

“It came from her trying to find her identity as a mixed child, who doesn’t have a relationship with her African father,” Mascary says of the piece. “A lot of time she talks about the awkwardness when she enters a room with her mother, and no one ever believes that that’s her mom. The main indicator is her hair. She has beautiful curly hair and her mom’s hair is super straight. So she really had a weird relationship with loving her ’fro.”

Mascary’s description of the artist’s process, as well as the meaning behind each shape and cutout, give a glimpse into the amount of work that goes into creating one of these pieces. “I’ve had people ask me for copies of this to be made so they can be printed,” he says with pride.

As the themes change every year, so do the size and scope of the projects. In the past, students have created murals and community pieces, including a big map of the City of Cambridge in the youth center’s gym.

At the end of each summer, the youth center hosts a showcase where teens present their work to parents, educators, partners, and peers from the community in an effort to help connect older people with young generations.

“When we’re able to tap into sides of [teens] that people haven’t seen or they’re not aware of, it changes the way I’ve seen adults admire young people,” Mascary explains.

After the showcase, Mascary says MCMV aims to “keep them alive in the center,” but also notes that pieces do end up in other spots, like youth centers around the city, or even as a centerpiece at the Youth Worker Conference.

It seems fitting that these pieces would remain in the very communities and youth centers which inspired them. For MCMV, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and is in fact a medium to serve a community and bridge divides. 

“Anybody can be an artist,” Mascary says. “And who we’re looking for, for My City, My Voice, are people who want to use themselves as a vessel to connect with other people.”

For more information, call 617-349-6277.

This story originally appeared in the Voices of the City Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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