When Sarah Crowell, artistic director of Destiny Arts Center, talks about the youth program, she talks about big ideas such as building community, dignity and commitment.
If you've ever attended a Destiny Arts Center event, you know it's not just talk. The sense of community is thick. People know each other -- parents, teachers, grandparents, kids, alumni -- and they've known each other for a long time. The positive energy is infectious.
It's no accident. The teachers at Destiny Arts Center, offering training in martial arts and dance, spend a lot of time making sure the kids feel connected and safe with each other.
For example, one of the exercises is a game called "If you really knew me," which elicits answers that range from, "You would know I like the color orange" to,"You would know I've thought of committing suicide."
At the heart of Destiny Arts' philosophy is "The Warrior's Code."
Based on principles of love, respect, care, responsibility, honor and peace, the code teaches physical skill, kindness of heart, respect of and care for self and all living things, responsibility for one's actions and the use of fighting skills only for self-protection and the protection of loved ones -- never in anger. "A true Warrior lives by this code and firmly believes that the greatest warrior of all is the one that stands for peace," part of the code reads.
It may seem counterintuitive for a violence prevention program to teach something called The Warrior's Code, but the code and the study of martial arts provide a useful road map.
"It includes meditation, value-driven art, the discipline of art coupled with really strong ethical underpinnings," Crowell said.
Considering Destiny Arts is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, it's an approach that clearly works. Each year the center serves more than 4,000 students, from 3 to 18 years old, in its after-school, weekend and summer programs. It also has programs in the schools and for young people in the juvenile justice system.
The concerts of the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company are the center's best-known activities. The teens collaborate with professional artists. A writing group of teens develops the topics and stories out of discussions and takes them to the larger group for feedback. The dances have tackled environmental justice, child sexual abuse, racism and homophobia.
The teachers help the young people understand that the issues in their lives are occurring in the context of their community and larger society.
"We teach them that if they want something to change, they have to break through the limitations for themselves and their communities," Crowell said.
She said this year the students decided to address what they called "media zombies," realizing they are always texting on their phones and they don't talk to or look at each other.
"I didn't tell them that; they came up with it themselves," Crowell said.
With their own stories and issues as the inspiration, the dances have authenticity.
Established by Kate Hobbs, the center's goal was to give young people the skills and strategies to be safe. Hobbs recruited Crowell, a dancer with Dance Brigade, to develop the dance side of the program as hip-hop dance was moving from the streets into dance classes.
"It's been a conversation in the field of youth development -- how arts are transformative to young people, academically, physically, emotional and spiritually," Crowell said.
The documentary, "A Place Named Destiny" was produced 10 years ago, and another is in the works, "F R E E." After a capital campaign to purchase a building, Destiny Arts Center moved into its permanent home last October.
"We've been here for 25 years, and we want people to know we're going to be here another 25 years," Crowell said.
A long-term, in-depth commitment to and relationship with the community is another of the program's key principles.
"A lot of kids don't have trust that the adults and mentors will be solid for them, will stick around," she said. "We want them to feel secure. To know the teacher will be there year after year."
Also this year, Hobbs returned after taking a 10-year break to start her own martial arts center.
Many of the original students are raising their own families. Several of them have come back to work at Destiny.
"The alums are doing powerful work in the world as artists, teachers, activists, city planners, equal housing advocates in South Africa, playwrights," Crowell said. "They are raising their families with the positive values they learned here. There are a million stories."
Destiny Arts Center's 25th Anniversary Benefit Gala is May 17, at its new home, 970 Grace Ave., in Oakland. Marc Bamuthi Joseph, arts activist, National Poetry Slam champion and Broadway veteran, will be the master of ceremonies. Tickets are available at www.destinyarts.org or by calling 510-597-1619.