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Telling It is an award-winning community-based program designed for under-served children and youth grades K-12 that has established a close collaboration with the University of Michigan through the Residential College service-learning course, “Empowering Communities through Creative Expression." The program's Founding Director, Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel, is also a part of the teaching team for this class.

Empowering Communities through Creative Expression” offers students the opportunity to explore how the arts affect change in communities. It challenges the understanding of what it means to be empowered and how to be an agent of empowerment. Students learn how to apply the arts as a tool for change in issues of social justice and, as an educational tool in response to the impact of racism and classism on equal access to educational resources for children and youth in the United States.  

The course’s teaching team practice engaged-learning as an instructional tool in a class that includes undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students. Students develop the capacity to formulate creative arts interventions through exposure to engaged-learning practices in the classroom and through hands-on work with one of  four exemplary community-based projects in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. A majority of the students in the class elect to intern at one of the program's community-based sites under the direct supervision of their teacher, Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel. Students are offered a collaborative learning experience with faculty from the Residential College and School of Social Work, community artists and members from local agencies serving families and youth. Students explore how this genre affects personal, community and societal transformation through self-reflection, creative response and the examination of innovators such as Lisa Delpit, Augusto Boal, Hector Aristizabel and Dorothy Heathcote.

Telling It serves children and youth who may be coping with the trauma of homelessness, exposure to gang activity, or any of the other compounding factors that come with under-served communities. The program employs innovative approaches to boost scholastic confidence by using the healing aspects of the arts in concert with evidenced-based educational and social work practices. The program has demonstrated success in establishing safe and creative environments, stimulating creative writing and literacy skills, and identifying and addressing impediments for personal and academic success.

The Residential College course brings in student interns to participate as mentors at the Telling It sites in the community. This opportunity encourages and enables university students to develop empathy and sensitivity, as well as develop skills such as leading a group, planning a session, and identifying youth needs. The Telling It internship opportunity bridges the academic and neighboring communities. As a result of their experience, many U-M students express a desire to continue their commitment to social justice through a career that involves community service.

Since 2002, Telling It has engaged more than 600 children and youth. Through the development and implementation of evaluation and assessment tools, significant changes in the behavior, literacy skills and future vision of the participants have been identified. In addition to the program's long-time community partners — the University of Michigan, SOS Community Services, and Avalon HousingTelling It has established a partnership with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and organizations in the greater Ypsilanti community.