YouthCAN participants cook Korean food for elders at the International Community Health Services during the Summer 2014 culinary arts session. • Courtesy Photo
YouthCAN participants cook Korean food for elders at the International Community Health Services during the Summer 2014 culinary arts session. • Courtesy Photo

Over the last decade, the Wing Luke Museum’s YouthCAN program has been helping API youth ages 15 to 19 to find their voices through art and civic engagement.

The award-winning arts and leadership program works to connect API youth to their heritage, help them explore their identities as informed by social/political issues, and involve them in their community through hands-on art projects, developed and led by mentor artists.

Youth artwork is displayed in the Frank Fujii Youth Space Gallery and has also appeared in The Wing’s storefront window, Chinatown-ID’s Canton Alley, the City of Seattle’s Ethnic Heritage Gallery, and other community venues.

The free program meets on Wednesday and Fridays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the school year.

The International Examiner caught up with YouthCAN manager Minh Nguyen to talk about the evolution of the program.


International Examiner: Could you tell me about how the YouthCAN program got started?

Minh Nguyen: YouthCAN started in 2003, long before my time as program manager (I started at the beginning of this year). The story goes that museum staff noticed students hanging out aimlessly in the neighborhood so they worked with social service agencies to create an after-school arts-based program.

The program as it is today is equally committed to art and civic engagement. We provide opportunities for teens to experiment with many types of art and a space for them to install and exhibit their work. As well, we pair every art session with a social theme or a piece of history. For example, this summer YouthCAN learned about food secruity and systemic barriers to good food as they learned about food photography.

IE: What were some highlights from last year’s program?

MN: My personal highlight has been seeing how YouthCAN students carry the values we discuss in YouthCAN outside of the program. We spend a lot of time in the program talking about being an active community member, and how that involves showing up to support other people, or to weigh in on issues that affect the community.

When I run into YouthCAN at community forums and art openings, or when I learn that some of them have continued practicing an art form long after that session is over, those are moments of success for me.

IE: What’s in store for the teens this year?

MN: This Fall, the participants are learning about new experiments in Asian art. There is so much provocative and innovative art right now by both Asian artists in America and Asia. We will be studying these artists who are pushing us to rethink big issues in society, and will be making experimental art of our own.

I have also been working on developing meaningful partnerships with other youth programs, both within the Chinatown/International District and in the greater Seattle area. There are so many other youth programs here that do great work, and have upheld the neighborhood for many years. I have been part of a neighborhood API Youth Workers’ Coalition and collectively we are figuring out how to be in communication with each other and support each other to provide excellent assistance and resource access for all the youth who come to any of our programs.

IE: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face with your program?

MN: A challenge that we face is figuring out how to create a comprehensive and relevant arts program that is at the same time as inclusive as possible. There are API youth in the program who are American-born, already interested in art, and are looking for a space to develop their art practice. There have also been youth in the program who are recent immigrants [who are here for] more than an art program, and need a translator and assistance with homework. How can we create a program that is beneficial to those two types of youth, and all the ones in between? If you have suggestions, we’d love to hear them.

IE: How do you think the arts contributes to a young person’s development?

MN: Critical arts education is crucial to youth development, I firmly believe this. I’m less concerned with encouraging youth to explore career tracts in the arts, although that will happen naturally. What’s more important is that, regardless of what youth choose to do with their lives, an arts education provides them new tools and avenues to have a voice and a space to explore what it means to be who they are in this very confusing time, in their lives and in the world. Art is a voice, and for youth of color, an indispensible one.

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