What started with one child saying, “I’m hungry-o,” in the tradition of adding an “o” to English-language words spoken by Liberians, grew into the central theme of a play calling for social change. The Burning Barriers, Building Bridges (B4) Youth Theatre, led by Jasmine Blanks (MPP ’08), teaches young people to express themselves through the arts. On one afternoon, one child’s “I’m hungry-o” statement led to several others chanting, and then became a song about being hungry for peace, education, and change.
“The children are hungry for social change, and their expression of that came out of play,” says Blanks about the song that became the heart of a performance during the youth theatre’s inaugural year and is still sung today. “It was amazing to see how we could take a tangible thing [like being hungry] and relate it to the social issues for all people. And, it was children who were able to voice these concerns.”
Blanks teaches music to Maryland middle-school students during the school year and runs the B4 Youth Theatre in Liberia, West Africa, during summer months. The program grew from Blanks’ thesis at the Humphrey School, which outlined a business plan and model for a residential school focused on using the arts to develop talent and academic ability of underserved youth. After completing her Master of Public Policy degree, a summer internship in Liberia required that she start an arts program at an orphanage. The B4 Youth Theatre’s model grew from that program and is now incorporated into the residential program at an orphanage in Mt. Barclay, Liberia.
Blanks says that the mission of B4 Youth Theatre is to empower young people to become educated citizens through artistic expression. “We achieve that by using basic community organization techniques to identify characters and players and to write original plays.”
The summer-long program is for children ages five to 18. The younger ages participate in music and art classes, while the older children write an original play, choreograph dance, write music, and then perform publicly. This year, Blanks is helping to train 15 Liberian adults to implement the program model at five different sites, which will benefit about 300 young people.
Since starting the theatre program, Blanks has seen progress. When B4 Youth Theatre began in 2009, public education was available in Liberia only through seventh grade; today it is compulsory through ninth grade. The recently passed Liberian Children’s Law gives children basic rights—the issues that children have been incorporating into their performances.
“I like that people who have not often had the chance to express their concerns have a venue for doing so in a way that is accepted by others,” says Blanks. “Children aren’t usually heard in most settings in Liberia. To see them speaking directly to their government through theatre and the arts is something to celebrate.”
Blanks’ credits the success of her work in Liberia with being in the right place at the right time. After living in diverse communities in Florida and New Jersey, she calls the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that surrounds the Humphrey School the most culturally rich area she’d ever lived. While Blanks was writing her thesis, she heard the Liberian president speak at the Humphrey School about that country’s educational needs.
“If I had been somewhere else, I would not have had the opportunity hear President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speak. That experience—and my entire Humphrey School experience—allowed me to connect my interests here with making a difference in an international context.”