2014 Grants Challenge

BRIDGE-ing Cultures and Cultivating Change in LA through Original Youth & Community Theatre

Connect and unite diverse LA youth through collaborative playwriting & performance workshops, generating actions to address local problems.


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Connect and unite diverse LA youth through collaborative playwriting & performance workshops, generating actions to address local problems.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a region of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

South LA

Lynwood (with potential to expand throughout LA County)

What is your idea/project in more detail?

BRIDGE Theatre Project began in 2009 as an international theatre program offering worldwide exchange opportunities for youth to connect through original plays. Our name, BRIDGE, is an acronym for Building Relationships and Inspiring Dialogue through Global (or Grassroots) Exchange. We have had hugely successful programs here in LA and in severely impoverished areas of Ecuador and Nepal.

We have been offered an opportunity to further develop our mission with the Lynwood Unified School District. With LA2050 support, we will expand our program goals to connect LA youth of different cultural backgrounds while promoting change within their communities by exploring solutions to local problems, all through storytelling and original theatre.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

Our first goal is to connect students to themselves. Through writing prompts and sharing personal stories in a supportive environment, students explore their own dreams and struggles on a deeper level. Identifying commonalities among one another breaks down perceived barriers and preconceived notions among the group, leading to the important understanding that we are all more alike than different. We deepen this idea by learning about the cultural diversity found all around Los Angeles, demystifying stereotypes and gaining appreciation for the unique qualities we all possess.

Through this process of writing, open sharing, and interactive theatre activities, we also begin creating an awareness of students’ own personal struggles, as well as those in the community at-large. Through theatre, we engage students to imagine: What would our lives look like without these struggles? And how do we make that happen? We also impart the importance of setting attainable goals, challenge students how to manage long-term problems and consider compromises that may be necessary (give and take).

The next step is collaboration: How do we work together to make a better community? How do we unite our commonalities and utilize our unique and wonderful differences to do that? To that end, students work in small groups to combine their individual stories and solutions to create a collaborative work of art: an original, group-written play. The students then have an opportunity to perform one of the other small groups’ plays, allowing them to “try on” and “act out” other solutions that may differ from their own. This further demonstrates that there is no one way to tackle a problem – there are many great ideas, and by working together we can develop practical solutions to attain them.

From there we invite the community to participate in the change-making process. Students perform their plays and share their stories in a culminating production for their families, teachers and other members of the community. We engage the audience in discussion and even bring them on stage to “perform” their ideas for creating a better society. We invite neighborhood councils, civic leaders and social service agencies to facilitate the conversation of how to make real change right now. Sustainable efforts provide the community with tools to continue the conversation after the program ends and brainstorm ways to continue motivating one another to move forward with their goals.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?

Despite the myriad of diverse cultures in Los Angeles, we are surprisingly disconnected. BRIDGE Theatre Project offers an artistic means to correct this. We target the youth community, because children are the key to creating lasting change.

First and foremost, we must have a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals. Once we attain that, we can then identify what we have in common with those around us. BRIDGE expands this idea further by facilitating conversation about the diverse people and cultures prevalent in LA County, even if they have little to no current interaction with them. Opening their world view and allowing them to identify and connect with others outside their culture is a crucial component to our program. Through that means, the students can begin working together. It also prepares them for future cross-cultural interactions. The idea that we are more alike than different is paramount to unifying our society and creating positive change on the macro level.

Once students foster a stronger connection to themselves, then to one another, then to other populations within LA, they connect on a working level by collaborating with their peers in small groups to write a play. They gain an understanding of the democratic process (not every idea will be used, but the group will decide as a whole). Then, to gain an appreciation for other collaborative ideas, each small group rehearses and performs another group’s play. Through this connection, each student gains a broader perspective of how society can tackle different problems.

Children inspire us, and we rely on that for a successful culmination of the BRIDGE program. Families, teachers and other adults in the community will see the tangible connections made between the youth. Their progress and ability to dissolve barriers will inspire them to make a change, right here and now. Connecting them with civic leaders and service providers makes it possible for them to build a better community for themselves immediately. And the lasting effects are evident. By working with children, we plant the seeds for building a better future. We encourage students to get involved in their communities and civic processes now, and educate them how to do so even more in their adult years. BRIDGE nurtures in our youth the desire and know-how to make a change. By 2050, these students will be leaders in the community and active participants in local decision-making.

Whom will your project benefit?

This BRIDGE project will benefit the Lynwood community of Los Angeles County, particularly elementary (grades 4 & 5), middle and high school youth in the Lynwood Unified School District (LUSD). The potential for expanding to other areas of LA County is very viable, with the only factors being capital and greater teaching artist support. BRIDGE programs in other LA regions are part of our strategic plan over the next 2-3 years.

There are 12 elementary, 3 middle and 3 high schools in LUSD. With LA2050 support, we will be able to conduct a 10-week BRIDGE program (2 after-school workshops per week) at each of Lynwood’s 18 schools. We anticipate that 25-35 students will participate at each school site, for an estimated total of 500-600 students served in the 2014-15 school year. An integral part of the program is also involving parents, teachers and other members of the community, linking them with civic leaders and empowering them to make positive changes.

Every school in LUSD is Title I, the majority of all students coming from low-income families. Lynwood High and Lynwood Middle Schools are both in the lowest-achieving 5% for all of California, according to the CA Department of Education. Demographically, the Lynwood region is 86% Latino, 10% African American, 1% Native American, 1% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% White, with 24% living below the federal poverty line (2010 US Census). Bordering other high-crime neighborhoods Compton and South Gate, Lynwood also has a prevalence of gang activity. Extracurricular programs like BRIDGE, geared to making a lasting change in the community, would be of tremendous benefit, and could cause a positive ripple-effect in surrounding communities.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Lynwood Unified School District is a confirmed collaborator on this project. BRIDGE was approached by LUSD’s Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services to implement this program in all 18 schools within the district. It will mark our first collaboration with LUSD.

The great benefit of working directly with the school district is the ability to swiftly begin our program at each individual school without having to first establish in-roads at every site. Another advantage in our partnership with LUSD is access to limited district funding allocated for arts programming. (Please note, however, that this district funding alone is not sufficient enough to execute the full scope of our program as described here.)

Our chief administrative staff includes myself, Adam Kalesperis, and Joe Quintero, co-founding directors of BRIDGE Theatre Project. We have both worked as professional artists and educators, with over 20 years combined teaching and arts management experience. As co-founding directors of BRIDGE Theatre Project, we have worked together since 2009 (and since 2008 in previous teaching capacities), sharing responsibility for all BRIDGE program decisions both here in LA and abroad.

Additional partners will include teaching artists needed to execute the program at the schools. Having worked alongside many teaching artists with a variety of other LA arts organizations, we have a large pool of colleagues whom we’ve known for several years. We can attest to the quality and caliber of our network of teaching artists, and we will only approach the best of the best to be a part of this program.

The following guideposts are critical to a successful collaboration with all aforementioned partners:

1. A comprehensive understanding of our programmatic goals and benchmarks.

2. A strong passion for working with underserved youth.

3. A shared vision in shaping a positive future for all communities in Los Angeles.

How will your project impact the LA2050 CONNECT metrics?

Rates of volunteerism

Voting rates by race

Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support

Attendance at cultural events

Participation in neighborhood councils

Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)

Government responsiveness to residents’ needs (Dream Metric)

Total number of social media friends (Dream Metric)

Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric)

Residential segregation (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Rates of volunteerism & Percentage volunteering informally:

BRIDGE encourages youth and their communities to become more aware of one another’s struggles and sets forth actions to make change possible. A crucial lesson we will impart is the importance of volunteering for a cause you believe in. Monetary compensation isn’t always possible, but if it makes the community a better place, it’s worth it.

Voting rates by race:

Progress depends on active participants in the community. One of the simplest and most accessible ways to do this is voting, which we emphasize greatly in our program.

Adults getting sufficient support:

BRIDGE’s culminating presentation connects parents, teachers and other community members with local leaders in government and social services. They will help facilitate discussions on how to resolve personal and communal problems, and provide resources for sustainable support.

Attendance at cultural events:

Participating in BRIDGE directly engages students and their families in a cultural arts program. The workshops also spark interest and deepen understanding of the array of cultures in LA. Our hope is that BRIDGE will inspire them to get involved in even more cultural events for many years to come.

Participation in neighborhood councils & Attendance at public gatherings:

Creating community-wide change requires being actively involved in the local community. BRIDGE will emphasize the importance of participating in neighborhood councils, including possible field trips to Chambers of Commerce and other civic agencies, as well as attendance at public gatherings.

Government responsiveness:

Inviting civic leaders to the students’ culminating presentation and utilizing their expertise to generate discussions will provide direct interaction with community members. Listening to local concerns and proposed steps to solve them will establish a platform for improved responsiveness.

Total # of social media friends:

It is inevitable that students will make friends through this process. BRIDGE is all about connection, and this applies to the adult community who supports them as well. Facebook friends will surely multiply!

Residential segregation:

Creating awareness and understanding of other cultures in LA, while identifying commonalities and demystifying stereotypes, will plant seeds for a more tolerant, harmonious society. By 2050, we hope this aids in the cultural integration of residences throughout LA.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

Each student will complete a comprehensive evaluation form prior to and concluding their participation in the BRIDGE project. These pre- and post-program evaluations pose questions directly related to the program goals and measure their impact on each individual student. In addition, observational assessments of individual and group progress will be recorded and reported throughout the program, by both teaching artists and administrative staff.

BRIDGE program goals for this project include, but are not limited to, the following benchmarks/metrics. By the conclusion of each 10-week program, participating students will:

*Gain confidence in expressing thoughts and feelings in a supportive environment.

*Gain experience in working collaboratively with others to attain a specific goal (writing a play).

*Develop a greater understanding of the various cultures that are part of Los Angeles.

*Acquire problem-solving skills applicable to individuals (micro) and communities at-large (macro).

*Learn the various roles and components of the theatrical process (from playwriting to production).

*Become familiar with local civic organizations and the resources they offer.

*Learn a variety of ways they can take an active role in shaping society (e.g. voting, town hall meetings).

*Make a commitment to get involved and participate in community-wide events.

*Engage friends, family, teachers and other community members to work together and create change.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

The primary lesson that drives our work with BRIDGE Theatre Project is that we are more alike than different. It wasn’t until our first international program in Ecuador where this became truly evident. The children we worked with lived in a very poor area – their homes and classrooms were small shacks, many with faulty construction and no electricity. Though at the onset we appeared to have little in common with the students there, after working together and engaging in dialogue about our personal struggles and problems in the greater world, we discovered far more similarities than differences. This theme has continued to follow us, motivate and enlighten us. Returning to Los Angeles, where we began our program with a small group of students, we showed the local youth participants how their work was received in Ecuador. They, too, discovered they had a great deal in common. One LA student, Lucy, nailed in on the head when she said, “We’re really not that different from each other at all.” Later, while conducting our program in Kathmandu, Nepal, students there made the same observations: “They’re just like us!” Indeed, this valuable lesson continues to inform and inspire our work with BRIDGE.

Art inspires change. – This is another powerful driving force for BRIDGE, particularly for this initiative with LA2050. The evidence of art provoking and pushing us to see the world differently is everywhere, and theatre is a medium that does this like no other. Theatre incorporates all the other arts disciplines: writing, acting, voice, music, movement/dance, visual art; as well as stage management, technical and craft work. It’s all-inclusive – there is a place for everyone. To this end, we can involve virtually anyone from any walk of life to partake in the process. For BRIDGE, that process is inspiring change – both within ourselves and society as a whole.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

The biggest piece of the puzzle – our partnership with the schools – is already in place. Anticipating that all necessary funds come through, our next step will be hiring teaching artists, drawing from our pool of experienced former colleagues and, if necessary, interviewing other qualified candidates.

We may be able to initiate a handful of school programs in the fall, but the vast majority will need to begin in January-March of 2015 in order to provide sufficient time for hiring, training, solidifying curriculum, recruiting student participants, etc.

It is fully achievable for all 10-week programs in the 18 LUSD schools to be completed by May of 2015. The remainder of the grant term (through September 2015) will be dedicated to program review, data compilation, establishing continuing school and community feedback forums, reuniting with students over the summer to check in on progress of established program goals, and preparing for future programming in other regions of Los Angeles for the next school year.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Though we have a strong working relationship with Lynwood Unified’s Assistant Superintendent and we are confirmed to begin programming throughout their district, we are a new partner and have yet to establish personal connections with each of the individual school staff and students. This is one reason why we cannot realistically expect to execute the majority of our programs until early-2015. We will address this challenge with pre-program meetings with schoolteachers and administrative staff, as well as heavy recruitment efforts to ensure we have at least 25 students participating at each school site. Our teaching artists and volunteers will be instrumental in helping us establish these initial connections.

The second challenge we must prepare for regards cultural sensitivity. Not every student may be willing to discuss and embrace cultures different from their own. We need to equip ourselves with as much knowledge as possible regarding potential conflicts/resistance that may arise. To address this challenge, we will consult teachers and administrative staff at each school to obtain a full scope of the specific population of students we will be working with. After gathering that information, we will conduct a training/orientation with the teaching artists assigned to each particular school. We will also seek support within the workshops that specifically deal with culturally sensitive issues by requesting the presence of school counselors. It is our goal to hire a culturally diverse group of teaching artists and volunteers as well in order to better tackle these potential concerns.