“We do not give a voice to the voiceless, but rather introduce a variety of forms of self-expression so each voice can be heard, no matter how young.”  -- Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel, Founding Director.

Our Story

Telling It was founded in 2002 as an arts-based literacy program for school-age youth experiencing homelessness. Over time, it became clear youth need to process the hurts in their lives first before they can practice reading and writing. Telling It developed and included therapeutic elements along with emotional literacy skills to support healing, learning and empowering of youth who have experienced some form of trauma so they can lead safe, healthy and fulfilling lives.

The work of Telling is accomplished weekly through a collaboration of trained team leaders, social workers, community artists, University of Michigan student interns, community volunteers, local nonprofits, and community partners like the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.

“After becoming familiar with the program’s unique approach . . . we became convinced that Telling It could be of great benefit to the children residing in our at-risk neighborhoods.” Jerry L. Clayton, Washtenaw County Sheriff.

University of Michigan students attend a weekly class, “Empowering Community through the Arts,” where they are taught an academically rigorous curriculum designed to foster an ability to apply the arts as a catalyst for change in social justice issues. They can employ their learning by choosing to serve as a weekly Telling It team member. Student feedback routinely reports of profound learning experiences and a deeper understanding of themselves and others.


Adverse childhood experiences have a tremendous impact on the prevalence of future violence, victimization, or perpetration and decrease the likelihood a young person grows up to have a healthy and fulfilled life. Cluster these adverse experiences together and the child has a strong likelihood of major health, social and behavior problems including premature death.

Our Response

Telling It is designed to meet the needs of youth with adverse childhood experiences.

Telling It is unique because of our multi-level approach. Existing arts-based or educational programs tend to concentrate efforts on a therapeutic or educational goal, but rarely combine those objectives. Telling It does both. A typical Telling It session involves learning new skills, experimenting with new art forms, building rapport with peers and mentors, problem-solving, and sharing ideas and personal stories.


Our focus is not on managing emotions but inviting emotions to emerge and directing them into creative activities so they can be reflected on and paid attention to. Telling It leaders and mentors intentionally create spaces safe enough for youth to share their happy and their sad moments. We help expand a child’s emotional literacy so they can speak for themselves and heal.