Recognizing that the teenage years are not simply a “holding pen for adulthood,” Charlie Murphy is helping youth discover who they are, what they can do, and how they can make a difference now. Through a new model of youth work based on creative engagement and partnership, Charlie Murphy prepares adults to work side-by-side with teens, inspiring youth to find their creative gifts while at the same time discovering their own. The Power of Hope (POH) brings people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds together; empowers them to challenge the passivity and negativity around them; and engages them in creating the communities we need.
The New Idea
Charlie Murphy has a deep desire to enlist the next generation in solving our society’s problems. He especially wants to reach and engage young people who are disenchanted with the adult world and feel powerless to change it. He believes that the best way to give youth the “Power of Hope” is to connect them to adults who share their concerns and are working on solutions. Charlie saw that there is an untapped reservoir of creative, forward-thinking, gifted adults who would be eager to volunteer to work with youth. He developed a new way to help adults create authentic, purposeful partnerships with teenage youth. He wants to build the creative capacity of the youth development field and spread a transformative model for youth/adult partnership and learning.
Convinced that society benefits when there is more connectivity with youth, Charlie uses the creative arts and motivational learning experiences to help teens from diverse backgrounds connect with each other and link to educators, artists, activists, and social entrepreneurs who can help them become a force for change. Charlie believes that bringing the generations together in a creative, supportive community can be a cornerstone for a more participatory, meaningful society.
The latest innovation in Charlie’s work is to recognize the power of entrepreneurship for the youth in his program. Charlie is teaming up with Ashoka Fellow Donna Morton and other leading social entrepreneurs to apply the Power of Hope approach to youth entrepreneurship. This next step is a way for young people to carry their creative, collaborative skills with them as they enter the world of work. Charlie connects young people to adult mentors in nonprofit organizations and socially responsible businesses consistent with their values. He wants youth to see that they can reflect the change in their lives in the work that they do, and that a career can indeed make the world a better place.
According to a recent study, only 3 percent of adults in rural and urban America think that they are in touch with the feelings and attitudes of teens. The report states: “Adults see teens as alien—a foreign species.” Teens travel in their own circles; adults rarely intrude. This leaves teens without models of how to be effective, creative agents in the world. The alienation is mutually reinforcing, so teens turn to their peers to meet their need for support. This accentuates the generational split and makes it difficult to engage youth in new, potentially uplifting programs. Many teens report feeling hopeless and disempowered in the face of environmental threats, violence in their neighborhoods and around the world, and other persistent social problems. Among youth ages 15 to 24, homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death in the United States. Almost 50 percent of African Americans and Hispanics, and 33 percent of all students leave high school before graduation. Youth who drop out are more likely to be jobless, homeless, and incarcerated. Their problems begin early, often due to low-self esteem and the lack of positive connection to and support from adults.
Adolescence is a time when youth search for identity and purpose. It is also the time when youth often lack positive contact with adults who could help them find their way. Youth programs do not build bridges among young people and between the generations. Although we live in an increasingly multicultural world, teens have little opportunity to form relationships outside their own circles. Most youth workers lack the skills and methods needed to help youth develop personal motivation, empathy, and cross-cultural competencies. Service learning projects are usually selected for, and not by youth. Most mainstream youth organizations provide a safe space and some adult connection, but rarely help youth explore deeper issues of motivation and life purpose.
Because of its strong focus on improving test scores, the public education system does not encourage creative expression. Art and music programs have been eliminated to make more time for academics, and youth miss out on this important opportunity for self-empowerment and success. College-bound youth face intense pressure to excel in school and on national tests. As schools struggle to “leave no child behind,” test scores are also paramount for low-performing students; academics are stressed, though the arts have been shown to offer powerful ways to gain confidence and develop their identity while improving test scores.
The Power of Hope program reaches out to youth ages 14 to 18 with a message of opportunity, but also fun—“A Call to Youth Who Care About the World” to contribute to building a better, more universally beneficial society, and to discover their own hidden, unknown, and previously under-nurtured talents, skills, and spirit. The experience promises more than they thought possible, of themselves or of adults—and it delivers. At each camp, expert staff and trained, creative adults guide an intense community-building process. Young people find their creative voices through the expressive and visual arts, develop relationships across differences through experiential workshops, and explore ways to engage in the world through spirited dialogues and real-life experiences. In group activities, participants entertain each other in a creative space through music, dance, storytelling, and theater; youth and adults discover together that they can be “creators of culture rather than passive consumers.”
The Power of Hope attracts hundreds of adult volunteers to be mentors and workshop leaders—individuals who are passionate about life, love to work with young people, and believe in putting youth in charge. Volunteers donate more than 35,000 hours each year in Power of Hope’s home region, the Pacific Northwest. An intensive training program helps the adults tap into their own creativity, use improvisation, and learn to build authentic partnerships with teenagers. These relationships provide priceless links to adults while reinforcing each person’s creative capacity. POH has several staff and AmeriCorps volunteers at two offices in Washington State and one in British Colombia; it engages artist/trainers who help teachers and youth workers use this new partnership learning model in their programs.
Each summer the Power of Hope offers four week-long community-building camps and two “Wild Hope” environmental leadership camps (through partnerships with environmental programs). During the school year they offer weekend leadership gatherings, events, and conferences (“Make Your Mark,” “Across the Lines: Learning from Difference” and “Hip Hop Hope”) and after-school “Youth Voices” groups. To ensure individual attention and intergenerational collaboration, POH provides one adult for every two teens (a ratio unmatched by other youth programs). From the onset of each program, youth and adults are invited to take creative risks through activities like designing an “I Am” poster or joining with a few others to write and perform a poem or song for the rest of the group. These creative challenges build self-awareness and help youth and adults develop bonds of trust. The arts-based projects provide a level playing field on which youth often outshine the adults, and marginalized teens reveal previously unrecognized talents. Differences fall away, and participants can safely shed their masks and connect at a deep level. Teens can and do attend camp several times and participate in events year-round. Older teens return as volunteers or staff.
Using creativity-based practices to bridge generational, cultural and achievement gaps, POH brings together teens from all walks of life—from rural, urban, and native communities. (Over 60 percent of the participants receive financial aid; POH hosts youth-oriented events to raise funds for scholarships.) The program does not segment at-risk or mainstream youth. Instead, it helps teens develop a new reference group based on shared values and concerns. The program focuses on individual identity, group learning, group formation, and social change. The experience of being part of a creative community of mutual support has a transformative impact on the young people. Many report that they’ve quit smoking or drinking or they are attending school regularly again. Through projects they create and carry forward, the teens improve environmental, economic, and social practices in their schools, clubs, neighborhoods, and broader spheres of influence. They learn to celebrate difference, make positive choices, and make their voices heard at home, in school, and in their communities.
POH has conducted training for the Washington Service Corps, a statewide AmeriCorps program, for several years. Gear Up, a federally funded program, is funding POH to incorporate its program into a seven-year demonstration project in public schools in both the Yakima and Skagit Valleys in Washington. POH will provide teacher training as well as youth programs and volunteer training. By engaging these nationwide programs, Charlie aims to shift, through praxis, the mindset of those who work with youth in all areas.
POH staff developed a “Heart of Facilitation” training program (one weekend a month for five months) to prepare youth workers and teachers to use the model in their programs and prepare a cadre of lead facilitators for POH programs. The training proved that the principles and practices are “teachable.” With one successful replication in Eugene, Oregon, POH plans to open programs in New Mexico and in Eastern Washington, selecting partners with the social capital needed to propel the methodology into public schools, youth programs, and then into the youth entrepreneurship field. A POH training institute is being established. The entrepreneurship program, to be piloted over the next year in Seattle and Vancouver, will help youth entering the workforce learn how to build meaning and social benefit into their work.
Charlie grew up in Baltimore at a time when race riots and the antiwar movement swept through the city. He was raised in a large, loving, working-class Irish Catholic family. His dad, the father of seven, worked for the railroad and put himself through college to become a court stenographer. His dad taught him, “whatever you do in life, it’s important that you really love it.” His mother, a vibrant, passionate person, urged him to go to the beat of his own drum. He went to Catholic school until 6th grade, then to public schools. He enjoyed the diversity of pubic school, and crossed racial lines to have black friends for the first time. He took up the guitar and began playing folk music. He started going to an inner-city Baptist Church, where a lifelong love of gospel music began.
During high school Charlie attended a summer camp led by an extraordinary group of adults involved in the human potential movement. The way the adults related to the teens and their empowering practices taught him “that I could take myself seriously as a person of depth and promise and didn’t have to wait until adulthood to do important work in the world.” All through college, Charlie apprenticed with Mid-Atlantic Association for Training and Consultation (MATC), an organization drawing on the field of humanistic psychology and offering trainings in the emerging fields of communication skills, group process awareness, experiential education, and organizational development. A college roommate and fellow musician later described Charlie as “a man on a mission, determined to find out who he was and how the world worked.” Before graduating from Loyola University, he became the youngest trainer for MATC and went on to apply this body of practice into several new arenas.
After college, Charlie worked with youth at a mental health center, but left because rather than helping people adjust to a “messed-up world,” he wanted to work on changing the world. He moved to Philadelphia to participate in a social change training center, and then moved to Seattle in 1979, where he became a full-time musician/cultural organizer. For nearly 17 years, Charlie worked as an award-winning recording artist, performer, and cultural worker. Through his music, he connected ideas, people, and social movements. He and his acclaimed band, Rumors of the Big Wave, raised awareness of and support for many environmental and social justice initiatives. He left the music field to work more directly on creating bridges between disenfranchised sectors of society. Troubled by the despair and alienation he saw among young people, he decided to use his experience to inspire young people with a sense of purpose and hope. He created a job as cultural coordinator of a new YMCA youth program, the Earth Service Corps. His innovative program ideas attracted interest in the youth development field; he was invited to work with youth in communities across the country. As Director of Training for the national YMCA Earth Service Corps he spearheaded initiatives for the World Alliance of YMCA in China, Venezuela, and Northern Ireland.
Eager to apply and disseminate the principles and practices that were emerging in his work, in 1996, he began the Power of Hope. His transformative, intergenerational model of youth empowerment has already changed the lives of thousands of people and has a catalyzing effect on their communities, a process that continues to grow under his dedicated leadership.