This spring, thousands of Memphis students found themselves facing a very different sort of summer than they expected—one without big get-togethers with friends, trips to the mall, live concerts, or summer camps. And as COVID-19 continued to impact life in America, local organizations who provide those summertime experiences were confronted with a similar reality.

So, with the 2020 summer program fast approaching, the MMI Works team set out to plan the best experience possible, pivoting with participants and partners to provide virtual summer learning, engagement, and paid professional opportunities for Memphis youth.

At its core, the MMI Works program provides a space for youth to explore and strengthen their creativity, earn money, and learn what it’s like to be a professional in the arts. During a typical summer, the Works program is eight weeks long, with participants working 32 hours per week at various arts organizations across the city. Each week, students attend one professional development (PD) session to incorporate overarching curriculum. Each session provides tailored curricula that helps students bridge their school and work experiences with whole-life skills, including design thinking, problem solving, and goal setting. It also provides a space for students to explore and cultivate a sense of liberation through creativity.

So, how do you deliver on all of the above if you can’t log facetime?

MMI sat down with Brittney Boyd Bullock, Director of Youth Programs, and Iris Hollister, Program Manager, MMI Works, to discuss how they approached planning for the summer 2020 program in a virtual space, and what they learned in the process.

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MMI: Now that you’re on Week 5 of the summer program, how are you feeling?

Brittney: I think today I feel much more grounded in the program operations. There were so many moving parts throughout the process, so before starting, it felt a bit all over the place. We wanted to provide a variety of opportunities for young people, since they all came to us with various interests. Because of that intentionality, it required us as practitioners to really hold a lot of those parts, right? To ensure that the young people felt that they had buy-in so to speak or so that we felt that they had buy-in as well.

I’d say week four, specifically, was really the first week where I felt I was getting to know [the students]. In the first week you’re kind of skeptical. The second week is a little bit of skepticism, but also who are you? Then week three is like, “I’ll let you in a little bit.” Then week four is kind of like taking a deep breath.

Iris: I continue to be amazed at the talent, wisdom, and dedication our participants bring to our space each week. While this kind of work has required many long days and weeks, I can honestly say my excitement and anticipation has yet to wane, because to experience our young people is to be in a constant state of inspiration.

MMI: What do you think the key ingredients were, in terms of making this summer program the best one possible?

Brittney: I do feel like our responsiveness in giving them an opportunity—or inviting them, rather—to be creative was the best decision we could have made in this virtual space. You obviously don’t get the opportunity to share and get to know young people as you would in person, and inviting them to be creative allows us to get to know who they are a little bit without being intrusive or invasive.

Anytime you are invited to be creative, you expose a little bit of your heart, even if you are not intending to. I think our ability to engage with them creatively was key because you don’t get that interpersonal experience in the virtual space, but being able to sit with them, and really at their feet while they share a little bit of who they are through their creativity allows you to feel a bit closer to them, even though you’re not in close proximity. I’m grateful we decided to do it this way because I don’t think we would have had the impact otherwise.

Iris: I wholly affirm what Brittney said. I’ll add that as a team, our approach needed to include a healthy balance of intentionality and flexibility. To Brittney’s point about centering creativity, we had to be intentional about building robust curriculums for the creative tracks that would not only excite the participants, but also strengthen their creative skills and capacities. With that said, we’ve also remained flexible enough to modify those curriculums so that they are as relevant as possible to the particular needs and desires of each group.

MMI: When you say “do it this way with the creative focus,” what’s the biggest difference between how you normally do the program, and then this year?

Brittney: Normally, we invite the worksite partners to create the experience, because young people spend a majority of their time with worksites. We obviously check in with them on Wednesdays for PD, but that’s once a week for eight hours.

This year, we took the reins. We were thinking, “We know that we’re going to lose work sites because of what’s going on,” and we reframed it. We said to worksites, “Hey, we’re excited to offer young people an experience virtually. If you have the capacities to rock and adapt with us through the summer, here is how you could be integrated in what we’re doing. If you can’t, that’s totally fine, we’ll see you next year.

MMI: Overall, how do you think the students are feeling about the program, and life in the virtual space, in general?

Brittney: I would say those young people who came in and were ready to go, still are. They’ve still been rocking it out. I do think that there were some young people who entered into the space who just had little-to-no organizational skills or prioritization skills for this type of work, and I do think that we’ve been able to see an uptick in those young people. But six weeks is not a lot of time.

Iris: Many of our participants came in not knowing what to expect, and have been pleasantly surprised by what they’re learning and accomplishing together, especially in the creative tracks. For example, the instrumental track participants attend weekly masterclasses where they receive feedback from professional and experienced musicians on pieces they’ve selected. I think that track leads and coaches have become musical mentors in this space in a way that the participants value. Just last week one participant shared, “The coaches and track leads seem like they’ve known us for years with the help they give us.”

MMI: What are some of the kinds of projects that the students have been doing with the worksite partners?

Brittney: They’ve really been working together to lift more of the research components and marketing and social media components for worksites. For instance, for AngelStreet, I know young people had been working diligently to help to refine and add to their virtual platform that they started before our program started.

For the Withers Gallery, young people chose a topic of their interest, as it relates to civil rights, and pulled things together for their educational component in the museum.

MMI: What do you think is resonating with students the most, in this virtual space?

Brittney: Definitely the creative track. They’re loving the invitations for them to create work to continue to build skills. Then I would say secondary to that, it would be the PD sessions that we have with them, because they’re drawing connections to what they’re learning and building creatively, and in some cases, what they are able to lift in their worksites. I think one thing that has helped us with that is inviting our creative track leads into the PD space, and then checking in with them so that they know what we’re doing, and what we’re discussing. Then the track leads are echoing pieces of that as well so there’s some continuity there.

One of the projects we’re doing within all the tracks is breaking out into our individual groups, identifying one systemic inequality or an injustice, and then making work to speak to that.

I lead the creative writing track, and they chose colorism. They all had written pieces about this idea, and then we presented those in a video, kind of storytelling format.

Iris: I’ll speak specifically from my experience in leading the instrumental track. Just this week, the group completed a recording/video compilation of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” arranged by our co-track lead, Antwan Gardner. I think what’s really resonated with the participants is their ability to successfully collaborate and create music together without being in the same physical space. Any ensemble performance demands attention to matters such as tempo, pitch, interpretation; these matters are not always easy to attend to in the same physical space, let alone a virtual space! Nevertheless, every participant worked hard and rose to the challenge to create a beautiful and moving piece of work that I don’t think any of us will soon forget.

MMI: I do want to talk a little bit about the creative track coaches, the MMI Works alumni that you’ve partnered with this year. Is that new for this year because of the virtual element?

Brittney: Yes, it is new. Before quarantine, Iris and I were working together to launch an alumni piece so we wanted to provide an opportunity for them. But when all this happened we weren’t sure if that was going to work out. But after looking at the budget and reassessing (since we weren’t taking trips or buying snacks), we found a way to make it work.

MMI: It seems like the alumni coaches have been a really successful element.

Brittney: It definitely would not have worked without them. They’ve taken the lead quite a bit too in this journey to help us to lead the PD sessions. Not only lead them, but gather materials and content as well. I have a coach who is an alum, Allyson Smith, who is a political science and journalism student at Howard, and she’s helping me along the way. It’s just been great.

MMI: What’s something that you’ve been particularly proud of in this process, of developing the program virtually?

Brittney: I think our ability to remain nimble during this time, even when we felt that we were losing grip. I think our ability to remain flexible and nimble has served us well. I say this a lot, but I think our ability to be intentional, and the fact that our actions and behaviors align with that intentionality, has been really great and is still felt in the virtual space. I think it was more pronounced when we were in the physical space, but I do believe that young people still have been able to see in real time the level of care that has been put forth.

Something else I’m proud of is that we went from a two person team to a 12 person team in a week. It was challenging to try to prepare for the process and add new team members at the same time. We had to integrate 12 people into the way we work. I think we did a pretty good job with that.

Iris: I’m really proud of how we are valuing the creative process. We are literally paying students to practice. I feel like that is rare, if not radical, because as a musician, too often we are paid for the final product. We’re paid to show up and play, but people don’t take into account all the practice and all the time it takes to practice. The students are excited to practice for a number of reasons, but I think one of those reasons is because we’re valuing that time, and we’re paying them for it.

MMI: What advice, if any, would you give to other youth organizations who are being faced with a similar issue as they’re preparing creative youth programs for a digital space?

Brittney: You have to figure out a way to incentivize what you’re doing. Yes, young people want to be in summer programming and they want to be active, but I think one way that we have been able to maintain that consistency is that the work is incentivized. When I think about young people being required to work from home, or learn in homeschool situations, I’m like, “How is that going to work?” It’s hard for us sometimes to focus and get back on track, and they’re being paid, so just imagine when that’s not the case.

The other thing I would say is, in this virtual space, I’ve really been asking myself what young people need during this time. For me, it’s a co-pilot. As their co-pilot, you’re many things. You’re the tech support and the emotional support. You are at times a guide and a co-learner. You are also trying to be a place where ideas can land. You’re a listener, but you’re also someone who could hold energy and space for them when they need it.