In 1988, New Orleans artist Jana Napoli was working in a studio in the Central Business District, around the corner from Rabouin Senior High School. Each afternoon, Jana observed Rabouin students around the neighborhood, brimming with energy but with few apparent outlets. Reaching out through the fine arts teacher at Rabouin, Jana invited a group of students to collaborate on an art project. For weeks, the students worked in Jana’s studio painting the business buildings that surrounded their school.
When the paintings were complete, Jana invited the business owners and managers who worked in these buildings to her studio to see what the young artists had created. A historic cultural connection was formed, as the businesspeople purchased the paintings of their buildings and paid homage to the talents of the Rabouin artists. Through art, the students had successfully challenged conventional social structures, placing youth in a position of insight and leadership. The following week, the students showed up at Jana’s studio asking for more projects, and a visionary organization was spontaneously formed.
Today, the YAYA approach to empowering young people has become standard, even “best-practice.” Yet in 1988 this approach was a true experiment, a singular vision on the part of an individual with imagination and generosity of spirit, who chose to respect and engage with the perspectives of young people in her community.