Here’s what happens when we empower kids to find—and use—their voice
Los Angeles nonprofit Young Storytellers believes that every child has a story worth telling
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
The mission of Young Storytellers is to inspire young people to discover the power of their voice. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit pairs students with mentors from the entertainment industry who guide these young people in exploring their creativity. The students’ ultimate goal is to produce a short script that will then be performed live or on film by professional actors.
Executive Director Bill Thompson is an actor himself, and he understands the power that using your creativity can unleash. We asked him to tell us about what inspires him and how Young Storytellers serves his Los Angeles community. The following is an edited and condensed version of that. To learn more about Young Storytellers, follow @youngstory on Twitter.
Tell me about the community you serve.
Our mentor community is primarily comprised of professionals from the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and New York City—actors, writers, and creative executives. Their job as mentors is to offer support to their mentees through the creative process, as every word and idea in the completed projects comes from the kids. Our students attend underserved schools and are hand selected by their teachers to ensure that we’re working with the kids who will benefit most from a one-on-one experience. They are typically chosen because they are learning English as a second language, have low academic self-confidence, are struggling socially, or have a learning difference. When these students walk down a red carpet at the performance of their story, to a standing ovation from their peers, teachers, and families, it can be a transformative moment in their lives.
Every child has a story worth telling. Regardless of the resources available in their school or community, all young people deserve equal access to creative and personal exploration.
How did you start your community work?
I moved to LA to become a film and television producer. My first boss required that I volunteer my lunch hour once a week for Young Storytellers (he started the program when he was in grad school). I quickly realized that I was more passionate about bringing the stories of LA’s students to life than the stories of Hollywood writers. I quit working for him and transitioned to Young Storytellers over 11 years ago.
What inspired you to do this work?
This kind of work is personal for me. My parents divorced in the middle of my freshman year of high school and I moved with my mother to another state where she could afford to go back to college. I accidentally ended up in a theatre class at my new high school. After my first assignment, the teacher told me that he thought I had some talent and asked me to audition for the school play. This changed the course of my entire life. I can draw a straight line from the experiences in my life I am most proud of—going to the Yale School of Drama, working as a professional actor, leading Young Storytellers—back to the moment when that public school teacher saw something in me that I couldn’t see for myself. I have seen our programs and mentorship have the same impact on our students.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
The one-on-one mentorship offered by Young Storytellers gives a kid who doesn’t see a lot of themselves in the current offerings on film and TV the confidence to tell their story to its end. A student leaves the program with the knowledge that their story matters and that their unique voice can be the one telling it.
What do you love about your community?
We have a community of creative professionals who personally understand the value of putting kids at the center of their own narrative. Working one-on-one with a mentor is an opportunity that is difficult—if not impossible—for these young people to access. This approach, which is the heart and soul of Young Storytellers programming, works against the trend of growing class-sizes and affords these students much-needed individual attention. Mentors in all Young Storytellers programs are there specifically to help a student discover and value their own, unique voice.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
Every child has a story worth telling. Regardless of the resources available in their school or community, all young people deserve equal access to creative and personal exploration. You shouldn’t have to be rich to have a voice.
What leader or leaders inspire you?
I’m inspired by the classroom teachers we partner with in the more than 60 public schools we serve. Often, these schools lack the resources for any arts or creativity programs. We partner with teachers who spend their own money and dedicate hours of personal time outside of the classroom to provide their students with an opportunity that could help transform their lives. They’re the true heroes of our education system.