Young Actors Guild's (YAG) mission is "bringing the arts back to the community." And that's what they've been doing since Chrysti Chandler founded the organization more than 30 years ago. Today, Chandler works with Executive Director Sabrina Norwood to motivate, inspire, and educate youth in the performing arts, including dance and musical theatre.
"Chrysti Chandler and Sabrina Norwood continue to seed and harvest YAG with nourishing fruit," says MMI's Tawanna Brown, MMI's Community Music Program Manager. "This nourishment is evident in the loyalty and commitment of their youth and parent alumni volunteer corps, in music and arts careers the organization helps to launch and land, and to the degree that they have transformed a blighted building into a sanctuary of hope and promise in the Orange Mound/ Bethel Grove communities."
YAG is also one of three local arts organizations who we welcomed into our Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (INE) this year. Click here to read the first post in our series, Capacity Building 3.0: Introducing MMI’s 2022 INE Partners, and here to read our interview with Sharonda Mitchell, founder and Executive Director of Perfecting Gifts, Inc.
Read on to learn more about YAG's journey, their advice for other nonprofits, and the exciting new projects they have coming up.
MMI: Hi, Sabrina and Chrysti! I know it’s been a busy summer at YAG. Tell me a little bit about what's been going on lately.
Sabrina Norwood: We've just finished up our eight-week summer program. It's been an awesome summer because we've been able to get creative and discover students' talents through different showcases. Students have had opportunities to grow in spoken word, dance, and music—they've been even singing in Italian! We were able to incorporate all of those things into our summer show. I think we’ve found the perfect mix of fun and creative exploration during our camp.
MMI: That's wonderful. I want to talk more about the YAG of today, but first, let’s backtrack a few years. How long has YAG been part of the community?
Chrysti Chandler: Thirty-one years.
MMI: Wow. What has that journey been like?
CC: Over the years I’ve been able to experience what it’s like to work with young people of different generations, demographics, and family structures. When the pandemic hit, we saw a big change in students and in their personalities. It’s definitely been more of a roller coaster over the last 10 years or so, and we’ve had to learn to be adaptive to our students’ needs.
We used to be able to say, "Okay, this is what it's going to be." But now, we have to stay flexible because, like I said, there have been so many changes. But the spirit—and the talent—is still there, we just need to unlock it. Because guess what? The students don't always know what it is. So that’s why we do the eight week program. It takes three to four weeks to really find out who the students are. So we do talent shows, we do team building, we do morning prayer. We do so much character development. That's the way that we can get the shyness out of it. We can really hone into students’ natural talent to see what is and who they are.
That's the challenge for me—and it’s a good challenge. Really, it's about adapting to the unique needs of each generation.
MMI: What has your experience been working with MMI?
SN: The experience for us has been great. We've had an opportunity to connect with different organizations and people in our community, and it's helped to build capacity within our programming. We initially started in the Program Development Institute (PDI) program, where we were meeting and helping to develop and build capacity within YAG. So it's been really awesome for us to be able to have the support that MMI provides. We really enjoy the partnership and connection there.
MMI: What are some of the big lessons that you have learned at YAG and as a nonprofit in Memphis?
SN: One of the big lessons we’ve learned is that it’s so important to be adaptable and change with the times. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the run-of-the-mill, meaning that we want to do programming the way that we've always done programming. But you have to be able to be open to that change and that adjustment, and be able to pivot. Certainly during the pandemic, if organizations didn't learn how to pivot, it was really hard to navigate and not get left behind. So being able to make that adjustment has been huge.
We’ve also worked hard to diversify our funding and not just look for funding to come from one generalized area, but being able to step outside of ourselves. Oftentimes, when you're asking for sponsorships and things like that, you have to bite the bullet and say, "You know what? We've got to go after donor dollars. We've got to go after recurring gifts. We've got to go after grants. We've got to go after sponsorships." Diversifying our funding provides us more of an opportunity to expand our programming with operational funds.
MMI: That's a great piece of advice. But I know it's a lot of work though—so much goes into that process.
SN: There's a whole lot that goes into that. There’s a motto of Ms. Chrysti’s that has become kind of a motto for everyone who comes through Young Actors Guild: only the strong survive. We have to be able to strengthen each other and ourselves. For us, there’s strength in being able to modify and adjust when you need to. That's something that we live by.
MMI: So, what are some of YAG’s biggest wins? One that comes to mind is that you’ve been able to expand into new facilities. Can you tell me about that?
SN: We have, and that's certainly been a win for us. One of our big drivers is being able to bring the arts back to the community. We're intentionally in the community, and it’s been so wonderful to have a creative house in our Uptown North Memphis community, having the Harriet Center on the cusp of Orange Mound and Bethel Grove, where it can really be a place for youth to explore freedom through the arts. We’ve also expanded into Mississippi, providing opportunities for young people who don't have access to arts in that area. In the South Memphis area, we’ve worked to foster community activism. It's been amazing to serve young people right where they are.
MMI: That's wonderful to hear. I look forward to seeing what's next.
SN: We do too.
MMI: What are some of the projects and the goals that you have as you're looking to the future for YAG?
CC: We typically create our calendar for the year in advance. We just finished our summer showcase and our next showcase will be in December. We usually do musical theater in the fall/winter. In February, we’ll do our Black History program, and then in the spring, Sunday Morning. Sunday Morning is our ongoing, traditional project celebrating and commemorating the African Americans who are paving the way for our young people in celebration of music, theater, and dance. We’ll also do a spring production, usually something that's fun and lively.
This year, our goal is to go out and do more community-based programs, because a lot of people do not have transportation or the funding to come to our shows.
SN: We will also be hosting an open house on August 27 at 11am, at the Harriet location in Orange Mound. Anyone who is interested can read more about that on our website.
MMI: Awesome! Is there anything else that you want to mention that I haven't asked you about?
CC: Some of our former YAG students who came through the program have gone on to do big things. For example, Jaylen Hunter, who's on Broadway right now with Lion King.
MMI: Oh, that's amazing.
CC: And he just got his third contract. He was in Memphis in November with the show, actually. And his training began at YAG.
SN: We had an amazing opportunity to have him here this summer to do a Q&A with our students. It was cool and surreal.
MMI: I'm sure they were so excited to hear from him!
CC: Some of them started with him when he was only seven years old. We have a good graduation rate from YAG. Many students start when they're seven and they graduate when they're in 12th grade. So a lot of them were on stage with him from a young age.
MMI: I'm sure there will be many more success stories like Jaylen’s. Because you've been around for a while, you're able to see the legacy of the program and the impact you’re having. I'm sure it's really rewarding to see any young person come into their own or find something that they love and hone that. That's definitely a big win—for YAG and for the young people of Memphis.
All photos from Young Actors Guild.