Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alternatives INC, Bricolage and Serving Youth

I walk down Sheridan Road fairly often. I walk Sheridan to go to ANAWIM, the Catholic, Native American worship group. I walk it to go our favorite Thai restaurant. I walk it to go the Cultural Institute of Chicago and finally to go to Little Viet Nam. As I walk I pass Alternative, INC which is a counseling service for youth and families. Outside the building is this big, bright and impressive mural. I wanted to video the mural but I also wanted a little history about it. So I went in and asked. Boy was I in for a surprise!

Alternatives provide counseling for a diverse group of kids. They serve predominately Hispanic and African American youth. They also serve white and Middle Eastern kids. Many of the clients are from single parent families, a substantial amount have had some type of legal problems. Some are having adjustment issues or educational challenges. Still others struggle with identify and orientation issues. All are welcomed at Alternatives.

Alternatives, a Safe Zone

The staff was friendly and helped me understand their commitment to working with clients’ assets. This was not a place that focused only on problems, they were not pathologists, and they were problem-solvers and teachers. Andy Tonachel, the Youth Development Director gave me a tour of the facilities. Alternatives was far bigger and the programs more varied than I could have imagined.

Andy told me that the current building had been a movie theater. That meant there was a large open room behind all the traditional looking offices. First we walked though the theater to an outside corridor. There was no way of know this area existed from Sheridan Road. Once outside the view was vibrant and of course youthful. What I saw was graffiti everywhere. This was their graffiti therapy which included friendly competition or smack downs. It was very cool and it was easy to see how this would engage the clients.

Alternative's Graffiti Art Program

We then entered the large theater room. On one side was the Youth Circus program. Talk about a program that would demand discipline, team work and perseverance. On the other side of the room was the Hip Hop art program. This was not cop berating anti woman hip hop. Rather, this was hip hop, the use of intense verbal skills, in the service of social justice. It was pretty cool.

Alternative's Circus Arts Program

Just outside the large room is a curved wall. On the wall was an incredible piece of art. Alternatives had sent an art educator to Pennsylvania to learn a technique known as Bricolage. This is a process of taking artifacts and tiles and combing them with color to make a public sculpture. The art may have a theme or may be more abstract. This technique was then used and modified by Alternative to create some unique pieces of art. In each case the process of team building, affirming and teaching skills and confidence was at least as important as the art itself.

So along the wall were large self portraits. This was the first Bricolage project of Alternatives. It was created by youth involved in the criminal justice system. I can’t imagine anything more powerful than to take youth who are disenfranchised, who may feel investable or judged by others and have them created large, permanent self-portraits. Talk about teaching “I am Somebody!”

Alternative's Self Portraits

In the lobby was a single silhouette of a pregnant female. This was another unique application of the procedure. Alternatives had worked with Night Ministries which runs a residential program for homeless, pregnant females. Instead of making large murals this project made life size free standing murals/statues of pregnant youth. 29 were made. They are now all over the city, the one in the lobby is a reminder of that project. The folks at Night Ministries tell me it was a popular project for the residents and emphasized the wonder of pregnancy and the hope of motherhood.

Alternative's Art Project for Homeless Teen Mothers

I was told that Alternatives continues to modify Bricolage to fit its themes and needs. This included two very large public murals, the underpasses of Foster Avenue and Bryn Mawr Street. I will have to go see them in the coming weeks.

Alternative's Outside Mural

Finally I went back outside to look at the original reason for my wanting to film Alternative. The mural now looked different. I could imagine the learning that took place, the team becoming cohesive, the planning and agreement of a theme and deciding what materials would be incorporated. Alternatives is a agency that is positive and creative. It is an agency that collaborates with other agencies in the service of the clients. It uses art therapist interns and art interns when they are available. They are an impressive community asset. I am glad I stopped by and inquired about the mural!

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