Why Yes Arts?
Rather than telling young people to “just say no” to drugs, we must give them things to say “yes” to.
Prevention efforts in the United States have historically focused on scare tactics and a well-intentioned but ineffective “just say no” approach. Research shows that, to be effective, prevention programs must increase protective factors and decrease risk factors. These factors can be conceptualized as operating in various realms in the lives of individual children and adolescents. The NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse identifies these domains as Individual; Family; Peer; School; and Community. Quality after-school programming is often itself cited as a protective factor, but also reinforces other protective factors (strong neighborhood attachment, connection with supportive adults, improved academic performance) while mitigating certain risk factors (inadequate parental supervision, exposure to neighborhood violence). Because risk and protective factors for substance abuse overlap closely with those for youth violence and mental illness (including suicide), effective prevention of one also lowers risk of the others.
The arts themselves have also been shown in numerous studies (see attached research summary from Americans for the Arts) to provide a wide variety of benefits to students in school, and eventually in work and life. Key benefits include: boosting both literacy and math performance; developing students’ creativity, problem-solving, and communication/collaboration skills (key 21st century learning competencies); fostering community connection and civic engagement; and strengthening students’ perseverance through adversity. There is also a growing body of research on the unique benefits the arts can provide to people healing from trauma, a major concern both for the children of Drug Court participants and for those living in high-poverty districts like FIS where high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common. Researchers are learning more all the time about the neurobiological processes behind the arts’ healing effects. It is not hard to see how, taken together, these benefits have the potential to reduce the likelihood of a young person turning to drugs and alcohol for coping or recreation.
The Iceland Model has been a source of inspiration to the HHH team since we first read about it shortly after our founding in 2016. We were interested not only because of the dramatic success that Iceland saw in reducing its teen substance abuse problem, but also because of the central role that investment in high-quality after-school programming – with sports and arts as the focus – played in the country’s success. In substance abuse prevention terms, after-school sports and arts programs favorably shift the balance of risk and protective factors; in physiological terms, they can induce brain activities that mimic the neurological “high” that can come from drug use; in common sense terms, they provide fun, healthy activities for kids to do instead of engaging in drug/alcohol use and associated risky behaviors. The success of such programs as implemented in Iceland is based on a very simple yet powerful premise: rather than telling young people to “just say no” to drugs, we must give them things to say “yes” to.
There are two sides to this equation: supply (those who provide out-of-school time programming) and demand (the young people who access the programming). One problem often faced in efforts to engage youth is that the needs and desires of the young people do not align with what is being provided by the programs. Programming should therefore take into account what the youth are interested in, what roles need to be filled in their lives and which of those can be provided by the programs, as well as what research says about what actually works. The Wallace Foundation has undertaken the task of surveying both young people and Key Opinion Leaders in the field, and has created an in-depth report that culminates with a list of best practices designed to honor both young people and the most up-to-date research on how to provide programming that fully engages youth. We were pleased to learn upon discovering this report that several of these best practices align with steps and approaches we are already weaving into our planning. For example, their findings indicate that having practicing, professional artists as instructors is essential to engagement, that partnerships with local arts organizations provide links to resources, and that structured programs enjoy benefits over drop-in formats. The report, Something to Say: Success Principles for After School Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts, contains a wealth of pragmatic information that will be useful as we move forward in this process.
Frankfort is a city that is rich in artistic and cultural assets. Yes Arts harnesses these assets in service of our young people, helping to promote both their healthy development and the health and vibrancy of our community’s future.