Generation YOU: Storytelling, Empathy and Action

By Christopher Totten, Senior Education Programs Manager, New Victory and Christina Bixland, Education Director, Ping Chong and Company

Let us set the scene: it’s January 2018 and Ping Chong and Company’s Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ, commissioned by New Victory, is presented on the Duke on 42nd Street stage. This production features NYC youth who boldly share very real, very personal and very true stories to school and family audiences—a brave act, especially when peers are in the house! Their poignant personal stories tackle themes of community and loss, and address issues of identity, mental health, immigration, racism and LGBTQIA rights. Watching these young people perform, relate to each other and interact with other NYC youth revealed to us that Generation NYZ wasn’t merely a production, it was, and is, a call to action.

Image from Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ

These young, unique storytellers were accidental agents of change. Seven young New Yorkers made their voices heard in a passionate and powerful display of timely heroism, and they made a difference—to themselves, to their peers and to the adults listening to them. What we saw at play in Generation NYZ was the power of truth in personal storytelling, and a potent reminder that by listening to others’ lived experiences and perspectives, we can learn so much about the humans around us, the world we inhabit and our place in it. From listening comes learning, from learning grows empathy.

That’s what compelled us—New Victory Education and Ping Chong and Company staff—to collaborate and create a resource guide inspired by the production so that more than those who attended the show in 2018 might unleash their own powerful voices. Full of practical tools for parents, caregivers and educators to encourage young people to develop community, ensemble-building and reflection through peer interviews, personal storytelling and, yes, joy, this new resource guide would inspire youth to share their stories with others, and remember that they are unique storytellers in their own right.

Then came 2020. This was a year of immeasurable loss due to the emergence and spread of Covid-19. It was a year in which we saw the amplification of a long-overdue national reckoning with the racial injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color in America. And, in politics, it was an election year of seemingly unending and unfettered chaos and division. Our collaborative team knew that the cultural moment was calling for us to re-envision this resource guide, because it is precisely moments like these when the arts have the most inherent value. The arts break down the walls that divide us, build bridges that lead to a deep understanding of our shared humanity and inspire us to innovate new approaches to conflict. We jumped at the call to dramatically change the guide to meet the demands of a world quickly shifting from in-person engagement and interpersonal connection to virtual engagement met with an overwhelming sense of isolation. We asked ourselves: How can we bring art making, meaning making and joy into a virtual world that feels devoid of all of those things? After lots of thought, coordination and time, we created the Generation YOU resource guide—so titled to highlight and honor young people’s voices, young people’s stories and young people’s messages to the world.

Pages from the Generation YOU Resource Guide

Now, in 2021, it’s hard to comprehend that this collaboration has been in the works for over two years. Our world, our nation and our communities have so dramatically shifted, and the release of Generation YOU is as urgent as ever. Young people need to tell their stories. Unearthing and sharing personal lived experiences helps us to express challenging emotions and experiences, grapple with what’s going on within and around us, cope with loss, connect with each other and recognize that we are not alone in our experiences, unique as they may be. Covid-19 still rages (to date, over 450,000 American lives have been lost), racial injustices continue to plague Black and Brown communities, and we’ve recently witnessed the unsettling undermining of democracy, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and constant questioning of actual reality. This past year was hard for adults; imagine what it felt like for our youth! Kids are watching. Kids are listening. And, yes, kids are affected by the actions of people in positions of power and influence.

And so, like the production that inspired it, Generation YOU is a call to action. This is the perfect moment to turn to our young people and amplify their voices and their radiant brilliance. With luminous youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s dazzling performance fresh in our minds from the Biden/Harris inauguration, our conviction is only strengthened that it is young people whose stories and reflections will shape the future—and we need their voices now more than ever.

We hope that you and the young people in your lives are as compelled to use the myriad activities in Generation YOU as we were compelled to curate this holistic and flexible guide. We encourage you to use the resource to find and adapt new and exciting ways of helping to amplify young voices. Let us hold space for young people to reveal their very real journeys. Let us listen to their lived experiences and perspectives. Let us remember the weight and significance of young people’s brilliance. And let’s do all we can to build our young people’s capacity for empathy. It just may be what the world needs most of all.

Log in or register for free access to the Generation YOU resource guide and you will also receive exclusive access to the full-length recording of Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ through June 30, 2021.

Headshot of Christopher Totten

Christopher Totten, Senior Education Programs Manager, New Victory, oversees and manages the content creation and facilitation of all teacher professional development programs including New Victory Professional Learning Labs, Creativity Intensives and in-school professional development workshops. He also creates all content for New Victory School Tool Resource Guides, offering educators and students a range of curated art form-based and theme-based activities, student-centered creativity sheets, as well as information about artists, companies and productions presented on the New Victory stage. Christopher has worked to expand and elevate New Victory Education’s approach to teacher professional development, and the theatergoing and theater viewing experience for kids. For the past three years, he has also worked in partnership with the NYCDOE on Create, a theater-based professional development track for Pre-K educators across NYC. Christopher holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from the University of the Arts and a Master’s degree in Educational Theatre from New York University.

Headshot of Christina Bixland

Christina Bixland, Education Director, Ping Chong and Company, leads PCC’s arts education programs in partnership with NYC schools and arts organizations around the country, elevating and celebrating student voice through documentary and devised theater. A veteran arts administrator, she served as Director of Education at the Flynn Center in Vermont for over a decade, curating world-class performances, designing arts training programs, integrating the arts into K-12 schools, offering professional development for educators and 70+ teaching artists, and founding and directing the Flynn Youth Theater Company. Ms. Bixland has taught and created curriculum in association with arts institutions across the Northeast, including The New School for Drama and Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Throughout her career she has championed access initiatives, like subsidized ticket programs, training scholarships, sensory-friendly performances adaptations, and arts programs for neurological patients and older adults. Ms. Bixland holds a BA in Theater from Bryn Mawr College and studied musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University.