The History Behind Creative Youth Development: The Closest Thing to a Universal Language

Posted by Erik Holmgren, Sep 15, 2014 1 comment

Erik Holmgren Erik Holmgren


August 4, 2014 was the 180th Birthday of John Venn. If you’ve ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation, chances are you know John’s work. A Venn Diagram is a way of visually depicting the intersection of ideas, concepts or, in the case of Creative Youth Development, sectors of work.


Creative Youth Development (CYD) embodies elements and experiences from each circle of this, admittedly rudimentary, diagram because it infuses art-making into the lived experiences of young people. Creative Youth Development programs introduce the arts to as a way for them to explore the forces of their world, to imagine new possibilities, and to develop the confidence, skill, and purpose to be agents of change in their communities.

CYD is not a new idea. In fact, it’s far older than John Venn. The National Guild recently published an article describing the history and development of CYD to its grassroots beginnings and first recognition in the 1990’s. The capacity of the arts for personal and social development, however, has roots that go back to the first institutions of art making. In the late 1500’s the first secular music conservatories in the world were built in orphanages in Italy. Community music and art schools took root in this country in the early 1900’s through settlement schools, which were often built in immigrant and under-resourced neighborhoods to grow communities into positive spaces. Since that time, the arts have followed a path to specialization, leaving many young people behind to be consumers and not creators of art. CYD programs let the arts breathe by leveraging their full capacity to create beauty and create change. And therein lies the opportunity: If the arts are truly a universal language, then the work of Creative Youth Development demands we learn to speak new languages to young people in all the areas of their lives that the arts touch.

Youth Development and Social Service

One of the most visionary things about El Sistema in Venezuela goes beyond the 400,000 children and more than 300 ensembles that are making music every day. El Sistema's founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, served as the Minister of Culture. In that role he had tremendous power to influence the cultural development and assets of the country. El Sistema, however, is funded through our equivalent of the social service sector to the tune of somewhere between $120 million and $160 million dollars. El Sistema, in the eyes of its funders, is a social program. It has endured six governments from far left to far right in part because it is easier to cut an arts program that it is a social service program.

Three years ago in Pittsfield, MA Berkshire Children and Families, a social service agency with 125 years of experience, made the decision that the best way they could serve the young people and families of their community was with an orchestra. You should hear those kids play - they have come to know their world through making music together and have never stepped foot in a music school.

The Department of Youth Services received an annual allocation from the state legislature for FY15 of over $150 million. The Massachusetts Cultural Council received $12 million.


There are a number of studies that describe how students involved in the arts experience academic gains. In 2013 Kenneth Elpus looked at some of this data in music and found that when it is controlled for things like socioeconomic status that music students did no better than non-music students. Essentially, students who already had built in advantages were choosing to participate. But what if we let everyone in?

Art making offers the kind of education that is essential to being successful in a new economy and has the capacity to close the achievement gap. Through high stakes testing, schooling is built on the Frerian concept of banking education - teachers deposit information into students and eventually they give it back as best they can. The problem is that it prepares students to remember things, not create. Who gets paid to remember things? With knowledge so easy to access online and through communication, a skilled workforce isn’t about what young people know, it’s about what they can create with that knowledge. CYD Programs work with young people who, without those programs, likely wouldn't have access to kind of learning is relevant in their lives and future work.

The FY15 budget for Massachusetts includes $7,546,122,192 for education. The arts budget through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, by comparison, was about .1% of that number.

The closest thing to a universal language today

Earlier this year, a report was released in Massachusetts detailing how the arts sector created a nearly $1billion boost for the greater Boston area. This kind of argument has been echoed in many corners of the country - the arts are a driver of economic growth. But there is another half of the economic argument that isn't fully explored.

Creative Youth Development programs save lives. They give young people a voice, an opportunity to share and contribute their experience of the world, and skills to solve dynamic problems that threaten their well being every day. The arts save lives and, to say it bluntly - saving lives also saves money. Students in programs supported by the YouthReach initiative in Massachusetts are graduating at high rates and going to college. By doing so, they're earning more money, paying more taxes, are less dependent on social services, and are far less likely to be incarcerated, at a cost of over $47,000 per year per inmate in Massachusetts. There is a compelling case to be made for Creative Youth Development programs to be supported through social bonds - investments (not charity) that have a quantifiable value over the long term for the public.

Challenges and Beginnings

'Creativity before capital' is a motto at the Mass Cultural Council. Money is a helpful tool, but it isn't the only one. Grants are used to pay for goods and services and, often times, the things a grant might pay for is available in another corner of the ecosystem. There are large performing organizations that are trying to reach out deeper in their communities with concerts and performances. There are world-class preparatory arts schools that are looking to expand and diversify their base. And there are young people that deserve to be a part of every one of those experiences because they are not responsible for how much money their parents make and they have a voice that can infuse new dialogues in the arts.

There are unendingly frustrating road blocks to leveraging new kinds of support, but it all becomes possible by remembering that it is people that make things happen, not systems or institutions. Picking up the phone right now to call someone you haven't spoken with in a new place might be a perfect beginning.

1 responses for The History Behind Creative Youth Development: The Closest Thing to a Universal Language


January 03, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Erik, thank you for the post on creative youth development. You hit home on so many ideas; from students remembering instead of creating, to how art really is a universal language. Your article is vital and relevant, so much I just tweeted it.

Working in the entertainment industry (through film) has opened up how I view different ideas. I've volunteered my time to teach at-risk youth the importance of education and goal-setting. Now that I've worked as a principal in motion pictures, it may be time to connect the two and teach our at-risk youth about acting, film, and the industry. Your article has pushed me in that direction. It will be challenging, but anything of value comes with a price. Once again, thank you.

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