Breaking Down the Walls of Silence: An Expressive Arts Approach to Youth Empowerment
by Lois Saperstein

As Executive Director of Center for the ARTS and the ARTROADS program, I have been weaving the expressive arts throughout communities, partnering with schools, community centers, treatment facilities, private schools, Municipal Alliances for the Prevention of Substance Abuse, and the affiliate organizations of The National Councils on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in each New Jersey County.

The goal of the ARTROADS program is to use the expressive arts as a platform to transform the lives of ‘youth-at-risk’ and thereby enhance the protective factors within themselves. The arts can be used to buttress the emotional, behavioral, cognitive and cultural competencies as resiliency factors. The arts provide options, challenges, and an effective means for promoting change.

Giving Artistic Expression to the Adolescent’s Inner Turmoil

The arts have the power to reach our young people with positive messages. As they discover the arts, self-esteem and self-confidence grow. The arts serve as vehicles to deliver strong enduring messages, giving youth in our communities the tools needed to improve their lives and in turn the life of our communities.

Adolescence is a time of change and turmoil. It is a period that demands coming to terms with new challenges, often a time of crisis. Given the tensions on all levels- physical, emotional, social, sexual, psychological, and cognitively, it is no surprise that many adolescents are on the brink of explosion. Although their need to express and communicate their internal world is great, they have not yet acquired the capacity to verbally articulate what they think and feel. They are not at a level of awareness, in which they can reflect with perspective and distance on their thoughts and feelings. A form of expression is desperately needed, one in which matches the intensity and complexity of their experiences. This form of expression needs to be direct but non-threatening. The creative arts provides a constructive means of expressing the inner explosiveness of adolescence. ( Emanuh,1990).

All arts can be engaged on an individual or group basis and all possess multidimensional and complex characteristics. The art specialist or the trained counselor, who not only perceives the adolescent’s handiwork as a work of art but more importantly acknowledges the expression of self it encompasses, can serve as a witness and guide to the adolescent.

At the same time that the arts provide a means of expressing the pain of this life passage, they also engage the adolescent’s strengths, idealism and healthful inner resources. According to Liza Nussbaum, a certified alcohol and drug counselor and licensed clinical social worker:
“Using creative arts therapy techniques in the prevention and treatment of alcohol and other drug use has been both positive both in group and individual counseling with clients. Creative arts such as art therapy and psychodrama assist clients in developing insight and awareness into both their thoughts and feelings which provides a deeper sense of knowing for themselves regarding their choices. In groups for high risk adolescents growing up in alcoholic and drug affected families, creative arts techniques helps clients to become more aware both intellectually and emotionally of their choices, and opens up avenues for healing and healthy living.”

It is important to remember that although expression is in itself healthful, it is only a first step.



Art in the ARTROADS program is defined as the synthesis of sensory experiences and their representations. Thus described, art is one means by which human beings organize their experiences in order to understand and communicate. The use of art activities provides the methodological framework for the program. Arts activities are viewed by most students as the most socializing activity in school. For these activities academic standards and properties are not the norm. Arts activities provides a hands on, creative and relaxed environment in which the student tends to interact freely and can choose either verbal or non-verbal methods of participation. There is no ‘failing’ in the use of art for groups like that of ARTROADS. That is, the acceptance of everyone’s

Perceptions as real though not necessarily the only viewpoint clearly represents a self-esteem builder.

The arts can channel energy into positive quests for better education, stronger family life and a richer community experience. The arts play a powerful and effective role in developing prevention skills. By participating in the creation of art, new skills are learned. These skills often apply not only to the arts, but to life in general.

This is the rationale for ARTROADS. The arts provide for active participation. It is learning by experiencing, by doing. The arts use an integrative approach. Art uses abilities that include the intuitive, image oriented, timeless, creative, open and holistic behaviors of the human being as well as functions that are more analytical, logical, linear, verbal and time-oriented. This brings a balanced approach to learning.

Prevention education has generally used an ‘outside in’ (didactic) approach to learning. The arts use an ‘inside out’ approach. The arts offer options, challenges and behavioral competencies as resiliency factors. “Art is a way to see what is inside of oneself instead of looking outside of oneself for answers” (Chickerno,1993, p13).

The creative arts focus on what is and what can be, not on what is missing. This critical distinction sets the stage for young people to discover new ways of learning, communicating, working and behaving. Multiple objectives are infused into the overall program incorporating information into the projects as they proceed. Art develops life skills internally, thus reducing adolescents resistance to change. This is unlike the typical prevention program that imposes external change and encounters resistance.

   ARTROADS provides an expanded view of what is possible. Working in the arts provides opportunities for self-directed expression that is not wholly dependent on adults and their institutions. The arts help develop self-sufficiency and increase self-esteem in small imperceptible

Steps. In the words of one young student, “ I am building my own way of seeing and talking about my world, and own the patent.”

This is an abridged version, the full article appears in, Empowering Youth-At-Risk with skills for school and life, edited by Dan Rea and Robert Warkin, McGraw-Hill, 1999.



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