One of the most striking features of Cleo Parker Robinson’s outreach program for problem adolescents is the way it describes its target demographic.

Eschewing the common at-risk tag, Aye (a Yoruba word meaning Life, and pronounced Ah-Yay) calls its young people youth-at-promise, which says it all. The young people are viewed not as potential problems, but potential artists. It’s a reflection of Robinson’s empathy.

I was very fortunate to be given lots of opportunities when I was young, she says. But I could have been one of these children. I didn’t love school; I wasn’t very happy there. In many ways we were also very disadvantaged; we had a large family and were always struggling.

Aye, which is aimed at weaning teens away from gangs and drugs and a life of crime, began as Project Self-Discovery about 13 years ago. PSD, explains Robinson, was rooted in psychological research and theories not surprising, given her academic background. Aye, formed two years ago, takes a more spiritual approach.

I began to see that these kids live in many different worlds, says Robinson. The challenge was, how can we bring them to the world that is most safe, and most creative? Aye recognizes that everyone has their journey and we have to first allow then to talk about it, to find it. We have to allow them to find the dignity of their own culture.

The program sources youth from schools, community centers, detention centers, foster families, etc. it’s a free, 12-week intervention that happens in the same space as Robinson’s dance school and professional dance company, allowing the participants an intimate glimpse of the possibilities open to them. Going the extra mile, Aye even arranges transport for the young people to get to the sessions.

CPRDE’s cultural artists and group counselors lead workshops in everything from hip hop to poetry to visual arts. We integrate dance into that, Robinson explains. But we don’t just dance, because some of them aren’t comfortable with expressing with their bodies yet. But they love hip hop; they create their own words, do research; we deal with how we’re rooted together, in terms of indigenous people and how rituals are important in their lives; and they write about it in the safety of their circle.

The program has been embraced by the young people it targets, and has demonstrated heartening success. Our young people will blow you away, exclaims Robinson (not meaning that in a gangsta sense!). It doesn’t really take much to transform young people, if we haven’t let them go too far into their dismay. A word to the wise.

Click here to read Cleo’s full bio.


Cover Photo courtesy of: Rose Eichenbaum