I became a high school art teacher at age 22. Art came easily to me. Whether it was drawing, photography, or spoken word, teaching art felt like it would be a natural fit. I started work at an all-boys high school in inner city London and at a school in north London. I had previously done some teaching abroad and volunteered at a school for the visually impaired, but this was my first real teaching job as a qualified teacher. Because I was younger than many of the other teachers, students seemed drawn to my class and we had many interests, from music to contemporary culture, in common. They always seemed to find ways to stop by or hang out, even if they were supposed to be somewhere else.
After a few months, I received feedback from another teacher that my students felt they had found something special in my class that they weren’t experiencing in their other classes. I realized that I wasn’t just teaching art anymore. My classroom had become a community space where students felt at home. One day, a boy came to me and asked if I could give him some artwork to take home—even though he was not in my class. He said he was about to be expelled for fighting. One girl came to me and told me she had not seen her parents for over a week, but still, she got dressed every morning and come to school. I knew that many of these young people were truly grappling with the daily challenges of life.
When I first met my students, I’d introduce myself by showing them my own artwork. They seemed fascinated that I was a practicing artist while also being a teacher. Every day, before class and during lunch breaks and after formal school hours, I’d prepare whatever art I was working on and let students visit while I painted. The kids wanted in on this. Very quickly, my classroom became a community arts club. I always let them pick music to play, too. Rather than being there because they had too, they started to come because they wanted to. I had come to the school wanting to teach about art, but I really started seeing what art could do to change and enrich people’s lives. Many of my students didn’t have regular access to the arts, or to travel, but the art they created and saw in my class helped them envision a world through the eyes and experiences of others, and ultimately helped them develop their own way of seeing things. My classroom became a place where they could express themselves and feel a sense of belonging—and a sense of home.
As we worked on our projects, we talked as a group, or I’d go from student to student to talk to them about their art and their lives. I witnessed them beginning to make more informed decisions and to shape their futures. I realized that making art was just another way to tell stories and a way to understand larger narratives in order to see who we are, where we fit in, and to imagine a future for ourselves.
After I moved to Scotland (initially to teach), I worked on a project centered around gang reconciliation. For me, there is no such thing as a bad kid. And there never will be. I saw these kids leave school grounds and join gangs because it was there they found connection and belonging. I wanted to show them a different route. In this work, we brought young people, some of whom were gang leaders, into museum spaces to create art that would hang alongside well-known works. In one iteration of this, we had them create an exhibition that was displayed alongside Salvador Dali’s famous painting, Christ of St John of the Cross, which now hangs in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, a museum built around storytelling. It is arguably the most famous painting in the entire country. When those young people saw their artwork on an equal plane beside that famous painting, they realized their voices were important. They felt the sense of validation that their voices mattered. They went back into their communities having changed, with a different worldview. They had realized they could be artists, too, and that building community is not solely reserved for adults. As young people, their stories mattered. And they had the ability to leverage the power from that realization for good.
It’s the same when we see a young person experience great art in the form of live storytelling at the festival, or in our storytelling auditorium, or when they get meet and interact with one of our Storytellers in Residence. A shift happens. One of the primary passions I’ve always had for ISC is for it to play an educative, empowering role for young people, in the community and in the world. A major component of this comes through our youth initiatives. Over these last four years I’ve been fortunate to participate in professional mentorship of the National Poetry Out Loud Champions, inviting them to perform at the festival and live stream into classrooms across the nation. When these young storytellers perform on stage, they’re sharing their lives, and their own perspectives on their lives.
Storytelling is a powerful tool that we can all use to live our dreams and make meaning for ourselves. This is even more true for all young people. As their stories unfold ahead of them, they can step in fully to the knowledge that they can be the story they wish to see in the world.
Thank you to all our friends and supporters for believing in this work and for helping us make this happen.
Kiran Singh Sirah