On Wednesdays The Possibility Project meets in a small rehearsal studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. A dozen teenagers and four adults cluster into various groups. Some sit on the hardwood floors, others sit on metal folding chairs, and others stand, acting out the words they’ve just written. The youth lean forward into one another’s comments and ask questions. They come to agreements and put pen to paper. Their conversations are intense. They talk about how to bring to life to scenes of domestic abuse, sexism, and the tensions of being an ambitious young person on the streets. They’re in the process of creating a musical inspired by their own lives.
The adults float around the room to ask clarifying questions and encourage indecisive groups to stand and ‘act it out’ to see if an idea lands. Everything about their body language communicates a feeling of collaborative deference toward the youth. Some teens roll away from their group, kick their legs in the air, walk out of the room without notice. None of these actions are acknowledged or ‘corrected’ by the directors. This isn’t that type of program.
“It’s the relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.”
The show’s narrator is by himself in the corner. He wears sweatpants, a white t-shirt, and a du-rag. He lays on his stomach to write, occasionally looks up with a pensive expression, and then returns to the page. He’s been writing like this for about 30 minutes when I introduce myself. He explains that he wants the narration to have a spoken word poetry feel. I ask if he can share one of his poems and he smiles:
I was raised by killers,
I wanna’ be a king.
They forgot about their soul,
Chasing material things.
The poem is a powerful statement about rising above the static of one’s environment to become the person you know you can be. When I stand up, he offers his hand and thanks me for taking an interest in his writing.
The Possibility Project is many things. It’s a performing arts program, a youth development program and a social change program, but most of all it’s a community of young people. This is by design. As Paul Griffin, the founder and Executive Director, explained to me earlier in the day, it’s the “relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.” This idea that the most powerful impact doesn’t flow from adult to young person, but between young people, was one of the earliest insights of the program.
“But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”
It’s interesting to think about this in the context of many high-performing district and charter schools, where teachers and administrators are more committed to containing and minimizing the social nature of teenagers than tapping into it. What would it mean to instead see this as teenagers’ greatest asset? What could that look like in a K-12 environment?
When I talked with the youth during their break and after rehearsal they were remarkably consistent on the point of community. Each of the five youth I talked with mentioned the importance of ‘trust.’ The thing about writing a musical inspired by the most difficult challenges in your life is that you need to share what those challenges are. “It’s made me less angry. I keep everything bottled up always. It’s helped me be open and trust people but the best part is learning to let go of the past cause I like to cling to it,” said A. She went on to say that the scene coaches are the “most important people in the world. They never judge you. Kenny and Elizabeth saved my life, literally.”
A first year cast member, JC, told me, “It keeps me calm. I talk my feelings out instead of keeping them in. And there’s lots of people I can trust. You can express life and feelings and no one gonna judge you because everyone has their own story. Everybody has love for people. We have a voice and we can be heard. All of these parents don’t want to listen cause they think they have the power. But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”
The Possibility Project’s Artistic Directors (left to right); Meagan Baca-Dubois, Elizabeth Howard-Phillips, Kenneth Phillips, and Niquana Clark
Of course, the youth in The Possibility Project don’t bear their souls to one another as an end in itself. If TPP is most fundamentally a community of young people, it’s most visibly a high-octane performing arts program. Their performances are a powerful mix of song and dance, revolving around scenes that depict the most gut-wrenching experiences teens in the city experience and overcome. They leave audiences slack-jawed and sometimes unbelieving that every aspect was created by the youth themselves. “We don’t recruit for talent but at the same time we expect the sky in terms of talent,” Paul Griffin told me. “We take excellence very seriously.” It’s this kind of nonchalant, yet intensely focused belief that, all young people are capable of rising to previously unimagined expectations, which brings authenticity and depth to the social-emotional and community building parts of the program. Expectations are everything. Earlier this year, they even released a movie, Know How, that was written and performed by students in the foster care program. You can stream it on Netflix.
At the end of rehearsal, the group circled up and gave each other shout outs. After the shout outs the rehearsal was over, but the teens still ran up to one another for their ‘three hugs,’ which is basically what it sound like. It’s an impressive sight, a room of smiling faces. Outside, most of the youth milled about on the sidewalk. I approached a pair of them to ask about the difference between The Possibility Project and school. “School is just to do work that’s not really helping you,” they said, “working hard for credits and a degree. Here you just come as who you are. It’s all encouragement. All good vibes. You work to speak your voice. It teach you how to deal with emotions. How to understand your point of view on life.”
The Possibility Project is different from a K-12 environment. But still, I wonder what lessons classroom teachers and administrators could learn from the work that they do?
Over 99% of The Possibility Project’s cast members stay in High School. High School GPAs rise .5 points on average and over 90% of students go to college. Maybe even more impressive, over 90% of cast members report resolving conflicts in their lives differently because of their experience with the program. There are no photos or names of youth in this article because, unlike teens in the Tuesday/Thursday program and the Saturday program, all of the youth in the Wednesday program are in the city’s foster care system and are subject to clear laws prohibiting publication of their photos.
For a more in-depth discussion of The Possibility Project’s history and approach, look out for my extended interview with Paul Griffin.
Here’s a Netflix link to the movie Know How.