The healing power of the arts, the empowerment of youth voices, and the support of trusted, compassionate adults. These are the elements that have drawn young people in DC to One Common Unity for over two decades, that helped youth face the difficulties of the pandemic, and that are guiding them toward a bright future that the youth themselves will create.
OCU is a collaborative effort between educators, artists, and health practitioners dedicated to preventing violence and improving life outcomes for youth and families. OCU breaks cycles of violence and builds compassionate, healthy communities through the transformative power of music, arts, and peace education. We were founded in 2000 following a string of school shootings in Washington, DC. Currently based in 23 schools throughout DC, we provide in-school and out-of-school-time programming as well as mental health support through our school-based clinicians. Over the past 20 years, we have impacted over 32,500 youth and families, trained over 11,500 teachers, hosted over 81 public concerts and performances, and in 2016 were awarded the Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in the Humanities.
Art that inspires self-reflection and catalyzes change
Our award-winning Fly By Light (FBL) program takes a holistic, transformative approach to youth education, supporting participants in reaching academic and professional goals while developing healthy means to cope with trauma, violence, and discrimination. The program fuses artistic expression, social-emotional literacy, mindfulness, environmental leadership, and social justice. We engage youth in workshops, nature retreats, weekend field trips, and art and music performances.
"We work on building mindfulness skills and artistic skills while also reflecting on our identities, experiences, and social issues important to us,” explained Fly By Light Facilitator Tyler Grigsby.
Several Fly By Light youth came together at a summer retreat in 2018 to lay down the lyrics to a song they hoped would inspire others to cope with trauma by facing it head on, through a little “Peace & Positivity.” Their music supported a movement calling for an end to gun violence that made the local news.
Delvin, one of the artists, said he wants people to understand that “it's cool to be yourself and express your feelings peacefully, without force or harming others.”
That same summer, FBL alumni artists collaborated on a song about self-love, inspiring women to care for themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually. The song "Love Yourself" has become an anthem at One Common Unity, reminding us to have compassion for ourselves.
When the pandemic began, our young people continued to create music for change. Daniyah Jazel, a Fly By Light youth, recorded her first album, “Love Therapy,” which was released in 2020 and is now on all streaming platforms.
"My therapy is my music and my words,” Daniyah said. “FBL has given me the permission, comfort, and strength to use my voice and know that my voice might help someone else at the end of the day.”
The work we do also creates space to engage young people in open and honest dialogue. FBL’s Organizing Troupe does this by giving youth the opportunity to explore the injustices within our communities and globally.
"Movements of social and political change have predominantly been led and driven by the creativity, energy, and optimism of young people," explained Co-founder and Executive Director of One Common Unity Hawah Kasat.
The Organizing Troupe builds on this idea by supporting students in organizing and leading social justice campaigns. Troupe facilitator Johnee Wilson acts as a guide, but the students do the bulk of the talking and creating. Students critically examine and reflect on the issues of race, gender, and identity, and create social justice campaigns, workshops, and assemblies to share the information with their peers. By showing young people examples of how art, poetry, media, and music can be catalysts for social change, they begin to see what's possible—and how to leverage their artistry for change, including social injustices they personally experience.
Centering youth social-emotional health in difficult times
During the pandemic, our programming shifted entirely online, but the youth continued to show up virtually, week after week, and appreciated having the space to share their feelings, connect over virtual art prompts, share mindfulness practices, and discuss issues in their communities. Last summer, during the protests following a wave of police brutality, our students carried out social justice campaigns, organized online vigils, and worked safely at a distance to make their voices heard. While the virtual environment has been different—and not ideal—the necessary elements for human connection through our programming have continued.
Once in-person again, we will offer critical services for community healing. As we're slowly getting back to in-person programming, we're thinking a lot about the social-emotional health of our students and how we can best support our communities.
“The need for sacred Fly By Light circles to offer space for reflection, healing, and community-building will be vital after more than a year in relative isolation,” said OCU Program Director Shaden Dowiatt.
This summer we are offering students space to grow their skills in artistic expression, social-emotional learning, environmental leadership, and social justice at our Arts and Social Justice Summer Institute at Roosevelt Senior High School. We are also providing spaces for deeper youth-led facilitation opportunities through our Summer Youth Employment program. Finally, we will be offering social-emotional learning and arts-focused workshops as part of some of our DCPS partner schools’ summer enrichment programs.
While we recognize the trauma and mental health of the young people has been severely impacted, we celebrate the resiliency and continued commitment of our young people to show up for programming and continue to build their confidence, practice their art, and lead change in their communities.
Check out previous episodes of OST Voices:
Episode #1: Higher Achievement
Episode #3: After-School All-Stars DC
Episode #5: The Fishing School
Episode #7: Latin American Youth Center
Episode #10: DC Fiscal Policy Institute