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At-Promise Youth, They Can and They Will

By Giselle Mercier

At ElevArte we embrace the concept of at-promise youth* as part of efforts to refine our focus on creative youth development. It is a term I feel needs to be brought to the forefront of the education field, since for more than 30 years youth of color have been described as “at-risk.” A phrase that does more damage than good for the young resilient people I am in contact with everyday. 

What does word choice like at-risk mean? How does it cast youth—particularly youth of color? It limits options, lowers expectations and in doing so, does not support youth aspirations. It infers that we are building a foundation on shaky grounds. Focusing on what is lacking instead of the strengths or gifts that already exist.

I take every opportunity I can to educate my peers from including it on funding proposals to sharing at public forums.  My staff now joins me in championing the at-promise youth concept. We are creating a counter-narrative that intentionally chooses affirmative language when speaking about the youth we serve.

Two values guide us:

  • Focus on strengths: While working with young people, positive and asset-based methodologies yield extraordinary results. (Look at the glass half full.)

  • The power of the whole: Working together on an idea, an aspiration, the shared vision of a group or community gives meaning and purpose in life. (The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.)

Enter Gina Rodriguez, Chicago native accepting her Golden Globe award, her speech made my heart jump with happiness. I realized Ms. Rodriguez had both these values supporting her path to success. Based on her speech, we know she had a collective family goal that started with her father’s encouragement to dream big and advice to remind herself daily, “Today’s going to be a great day.  I can and I will.” 

Her family focused on her strengths, support she acknowledged when she said, “this award is so much more than myself.”

Giselle helps a young girl sign up for a free art program at a recent ElevArte Open House.

Giselle helps a young girl sign up for a free art program at a recent ElevArte Open House.

Ms. Rodriguez, said something else about her award that is worth noting, “It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

That statement summed up the aspirations of a people that too often get vilified or casted into subservient roles on TV and films; a people we often see as “at-risk”.  In light of everything that is going on in our country today, it is clear that youth are also profiled this way, on and off the screen. Part of ElevArte’s work is to provide opportunities where our youth can realize their potential for leadership and even heroic feats—such as getting into college and graduating despite being bombarded by messages that impose a different story.

The support Ms. Rodriguez had growing up continued with her two sisters, which she describes as role models and mentors.**  Many of our youth lack this type of familial support, yet they find it in after school programs like those offered at ElevArte.  We aim to provide a respite, be the supportive adults who understand that terms like “at-risk” and “poor” only do a disservice to the potential that each of our young people possess.

It is worth mentioning that by age seven Ms. Rodriguez was part of a dance group.  She may have discovered her love for performance during this time or found the ideal place to foster her strengths. If only we could ensure this for all youth. Her success followed a steady climb that is testament of the support structures she had both at home and during out-of-school time.

Ms. Rodriguez was an at-promise youth with family support and access to creative resources to help her success. I often see similar stories in the youth at ElevArte.  Stories of perseverance, talent and role models, hard work and adult allies, focus and faith, success and triumph--they highlight the “at-promise” status of all our young leaders. Once we recognize our youth’s strengths and given the adequate support and opportunities they CAN and they WILL succeed.

Ms. Rodriguez recognizes that the award is bigger than her: It represents all the working parts that came together to give breath to the aspirations of a people to be seen as heroes.  Similarly, ElevArte is one working part, which contributes to the larger function of youth development. On that note, I want to invite you to join our at-promise movement and let us aspire to a greater goal. Let’s start casting our youth in at-promise roles. Ms. Rodriguez is selective in her acting roles, a gamble that paid off, and serves as a great lesson for the rest of us. Let’s be discerning in word-choice, so that the narrative captures the heart, spirit, character, smarts, perseverance, and sense of humor that each of our youth brings—let’s ensure the elevated outcome of at-promise.


*ElevArte’s asset-based methodology informs our choice to move away from misnomers like “at risk” and “poor.” We opt for “at-promise” and “underserved” because it positions our youth for success, reinforces the idea that provided with adequate support and services they possess the potential to prosper and succeed in life. Despite social and economic disadvantages, the communities ElevArte serves are resilient. Every day our staff and teaching artists witness youth, parents and families persistently putting forth the effort to advance their circumstances. The "at-promise" youth we serve are ElevArte’s neighbors and they deserve access to an adequate education, ample opportunities for leadership development and a safe environment where they can grow, thrive and be prepared to be our future neighborhood leaders.

**At ElevArte we believe in mentorship. 


Giselle has been the Executive Director since February 2009. She was the administrative director of the Arts Administration and Policy, Art Education and Art Therapy Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 03-08. Prior to that she worked for 7 years at CCAP (Center for Community Arts Partnerships) at Columbia College where she was the program director of Urban Missions. Giselle was the education coordinator of the National Museum of Mexican Art and also Randolph Street Gallery. Giselle has a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.