Every Wednesday, a group of teens dedicate their after-school hours to this season’s City at Peace program. City at Peace’s mission is simple: use the performing arts to unlock creativity around personal and social issues. With the recent bouts of gang violence in our community, programs like this are beneficial, possibly preventative solutions for our youth.
“We try to instill conflict resolution techniques, like how to get along with people who aren’t like you,” said Joseph Velasco, artistic director for City at Peace. “Once they hear other people’s stories, they realize that even though they’re from different backgrounds, they have more things in common than [they thought].”
Although recruitment processes began in September, new faces are welcome throughout the course of the season. The program is free to participate and there is no audition process — the main requirement is an eagerness to make an impact on the community and be a channel of peace.
Of course, it’s also about the art.
Participants have the opportunity to work with professional artists, but there are no requirements to have experience in acting or songwriting. Each season culminates in a production at Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara, scheduled for the third weekend in May.
“It’s about storytelling,” Velasco said. “We want to let [stories] come in a direct, honest way. It’s about where you want to take your story and how you want to tell it.”
When you take a diverse group of teens with differing, sometimes conflicting, backgrounds, challenges are sure to arise. Velasco says the biggest challenge remains the same every year: trying to get the kids to be honest about their life stories and to be able to share them. “These stories are so critical to hear because this is what is actually happening to teens in our community,” said Velasco.
When asked his opinion on one of the most important parts of the program, Velasco did not hesitate to give his answer: dinner. After every meeting, a long table is set up for everyone to sit, enjoy a hot meal, and give thanks. “For a lot of kids, that doesn’t happen,” he said. “To put it bluntly, some of them are just thankful to be alive. We provide a safe and consistent space that the kids know will always be there. Unless I’m dying, it’ll always be there. That’s important for these kids who might not have that kind of consistency at home.”
City at Peace’s vision is a society where teenagers are valued, respected, and play a leadership role in solving problems that affect our communities. By the looks of things, the program is well underway to making that become a reality.