These SF Bay Companies Are Empowering Youth to Lead on Social Justice
October 30, 2020

This summer’s outcry to fully see and celebrate Black lives was a wake-up call to dance organizations.

And while many dance education programs are newly inspired to incorporate social justice into their curriculums, four in the San Francisco Bay area have been elevating marginalized youth and focusing on social change for decades.

GIRLFLY, Grrrl Brigade, The Alphabet Rockers and Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company fuse dance with education around race, gender, climate change and more, empowering young artists to become leaders in their communities. Here’s how they do it.


Five masked teen girls hang on contraptions hanging from the ceiling in a studio

Courtesy GIRLFLY

When adults actually trust youth to lead, they lead, says Jo Kreiter, founder of GIRLFLY, a program centered on exploring topics like immigration and housing insecurity with low-income teenagers. Students research the topics in-depth with experts, and then make original dance work in response, incorporating styles as various as aerial, hip hop and contemporary.

This summer’s GIRLFLY program concentrated on the school-to-prison pipeline. Jasmine Brown, an activist photographer whose family history contains incarceration, led discussions with Kreiter and the dancers about the prison industrial complex as well as students’ own stories of incarceration in their families. Brown helped the participants create powerful self-portraits, and Kreiter and GIRLFLY Flyaway dancer Bianca Cabrera guided the students in choreographing a dance about disrupting the pipeline, harnessing the terms “freedom” and “constraint” to generate movement.

GIRLFLY is treated like a job and seeks mature, responsible students. Instead of an audition, there is an application and interview process. And instead of paying, those who join actually receive money to participate—a $500 stipend that often pays for transportation to and from the project site. The company works hard to find collaborating teachers who look like the students (99 percent are Black and brown, and some are gender-expansive) and who don’t have careers students have necessarily heard of (e.g., housing advocate).

The result is a program that engages students in powerful interpersonal work, and produces outspoken leaders eager to educate others about the issues they’ve explored in GIRLFLY. But Kreiter admits that she can’t take total credit for the way that students leave the program as leaders. “A 15-year-old that is drawn to an artist-and-activist training program is already self-determined,” she says.

Grrrl Brigade

Seven women in bright red dresses in a triangle formation onstage, raising one fist in the air and leaning to the side

Courtesy Grrrl Brigade

Just a couple neighborhoods away in the Mission District, Grrrl Brigade is empowering girls with social justice and leadership skills through dance training and performance combined with education on everything from self-care (meditation, boundary setting, having difficult conversations) to current events (Black Lives Matter, homelessness, climate change).

Grrrl Brigade youth, who are accepted by audition, perform modern-jazz dance, Afro-Cuban modern, hip hop and taiko (Japanese drumming), and have performed at major San Francisco events, like the WorldWideWomen Girls’ Festival, the Walk Against Rape and the de Young Museum’s youth and social justice festival.

This summer, Grrrl Brigade classes took place in three separate pods of 12 girls, as allowed by the City of San Francisco. One pod of 12- and 13-year-olds investigated the meaning of leadership, and wrote speeches as if they were addressing the crowd of thousands that had attended the youth-led BLM march just days before at Mission High School. The program culminated in an intimate performance during which family and friends marched down Mission Street, and the students gave their speeches in front of a set of protest signs while an ensemble of other Grrrl Brigade participants danced beside them.

Grrrl Brigade teacher Areyla Faeron finds that the community and sisterhood the program provides can have a lasting impact. Students—who sometimes stay with the program from age 3 to 18—make lifelong friendships, and have gone on to everything from internships at the United Nations, BAs in feminist studies and performing on Broadway.

But the biggest takeaway from the program, says Faeron, are the life skills—students learn how to connect across differences and to speak their ideas to large crowds. “When we believe in them, their capacity to self-actualize soars,” says Faeron.

Alphabet Rockers

Four young kids in graphic t shirts pose, looking very cool

Nino Fernandez, courtesy Alphabet Rockers

Based in the East Bay, the Alphabet Rockers are reaching family and K–5 school audiences nationwide with their Grammy-nominated music and hip-hop dance curriculum. And kids themselves are doing the teaching—the Rockers are made up of sixth- and seventh-graders, as well as adults, who amplify messages about racial justice, gender diversity, nonconformity and community.

While the Alphabet Rockers offer albums, podcasts and an anti-racism video series, it’s the dancing that actualizes the work, says co-founder Tommy Soulati Shepherd. “Since we’ve been making music, we’ve been tying choreography and curriculum to every song,” he says. And when the messages are embodied in dance, “we’re not just listening to it, we are living this music,” says Samara Atkins, a choreographer and singer for the group.

In a normal year, Atkins and the team travel to elementary schools across the country to perform and teach, having discussions with young children about internal worth and power and helping kids write their own songs about racial justice and empathy. This summer, following quarantine, the Alphabet Rockers created Rock the Block, an online dance party open to kids anywhere interested in making change.

The Rockers often leave schools having implemented new practices and ideas, such as Indigenous land acknowledgements. In addition to giving kids the tools to express themselves and explore difficult topics through song and dance, the Rockers help schools build healthier, more inclusive and more arts-focused cultures.

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company

Three plus teenagers in DAYPC t shirts lean over, smiling, at an outdoor performance

Brandon Tauszik, courtesy DAYPC

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (DAYPC), an audition-based and pay-what-you-can ensemble of teenagers from different economic situations, races and ethnicities, has been has been using the arts to inspire social change among East Bay youth for nearly 30 years. The teens work together to research, write and choreograph multimedia shows that incorporate hip hop, aerial dance, monologues and education about sociopolitical themes. They draw sold-out audiences in thousand-seat theaters.

In order to create a safe space for DAYPC students to explore difficult topics, director Rashidi Omari and the other teachers actively cultivate relationships with them. The group does trust walks, goes on a weekend retreat, and practices opening up to one another. Often they circle-up to share “If you really knew me, you’d know that…” This vulnerability primes the content and quality of their performances and their activism.

This year, in lieu of their normal spring production, the students collaborated with poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph and playwright/producer Kyla Searle on a film, entitled The Black (W)hole, about East Bay youth who lost their lives to gun violence, police brutality and mental health challenges. “Our show went from stage to reality,” says Omari. “We have spoken about BLM in a number of shows already, but this year many of our youth were the people organizing and participating in marches.” The film blurs the line between documentary and movie, following the teens as they engage with the protests and showing how they are “able, willing and being asked to speak their minds.”

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