Expressing Themselves in More Ways than One


A unique project at MacLaren teaches youth how to tell stories through breakdancing and filmmaking

WOODBURN — It’s Friday night. About 15 youth and volunteers are dissecting themes and imagery in a Native American folktale and connecting it with their lives.

It feels like a college course, although many college students might not want to attend a class on the eve of their weekend.

But these young men at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility volunteered to be there. They’re engaged in the discussion. And they’re motivated by what’s to come: breakdancing and video production.

Morpheus Youth Project, Open Signal, and Janus Youth Programs’ Hope Partnership co-sponsored this unique project to:

  • Teach youth how to tell stories through breakdancing;
  • Show them how to use digital media; and
  • Bring together youth with different interests and talents on one project.

Morpheus Youth Project (MYP) is a Portland-based organization that has been offering arts-related workshops in MacLaren since 2010. This includes radio journalism and breakdancing groups.

This winter and spring, MYP partnered for the first time with Open Signal, a media arts center in Portland, for the workshops at MacLaren.

Mauricio A. (left) and Gavin B. (center) work on breakdancing moves with Carlos Chavez of Morpheus Youth Project.

“One group of youth receives training from Open Signal on filmmaking with an emphasis on capturing dance and movement,” says Taylor Neitzke of Open Signal. She facilitated the group with Jeff Oliver of Open Signal and Carlos Chavez of MYP.

“The second group will learn the art of the breakdancing form. Together, they will create a collaborative short film.”

The group started by reviewing The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living by Joseph M. Marshall III. The book uses Native American folklore and philosophy to introduce 12 core qualities that are crucial to Lakota life.

The group chose to focus their film project on one of the qualities: fortitude.

Next, some youth worked to interpret and communicate the story through dance. The others learned how to use cameras and video editing software to create a short film of the dancers.

“They’re learning 21st century skills in technology and video editing,” co-facilitator Jeff Oliver says. “We see media all the time, but we don’t always understand how it works. Media literacy is one of Open Signal’s goals.”

Mauricio A., 20, says he hadn’t heard the word “fortitude” before this project. Still, he related to its meaning.

“It means mental strength,” he says. “That’s something we all have in common here. To have resiliency, you have to have fortitude.”

Mauricio has been a breakdancer since sixth grade. But he was also excited about learning video editing and how to meld a new skill with his older one.

Jace B., 22, laughs when you ask if he dances. Instead, he came to the project from the video side. He is a photographer and tech enthusiast who hopes to become an actor.

“I wanted to learn both sides of the camera, in front and in back,” he says. “Filming the dancers has been interesting. From our side, we are forced to watch the dancers closely, so I’ve learned a lot about the moves and what they’re doing.”

Program participants and leaders gathered July 5 for a party where they watched their finished project. You can also watch their video online.

Chavez, executive director of MYP, looks forward to sharing the video with the public. He wants to give the youths’ work a wider audience, and to publicize how arts programs can benefit young people in custody.

“For these guys, it’s validating for them to have people see what they’re putting together,” Chavez says. “They have all had a real role in the project.”

About Author

Sarah Evans is the Deputy Communications Manager for the Oregon Youth Authority, Oregon’s state juvenile justice agency.

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