True Colors: Out Youth Theater, a program of The Theater Offensive and the country’s largest and longest-running lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth theater program, today received the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama.
Represented by participant Traeshayona “Trae” Weekes, 18, True Colors was recognized for its effectiveness in promoting learning and life skills in young people through the arts by engaging them in creative youth development programming. The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award is the nation’s highest honor for youth arts programs, and True Colors, which was established in 1994, is the first LGBTQ organization in history to receive this award.
The award recognizes and supports outstanding programs that lay new pathways to creativity, expression, and achievement outside of the regular school day. These programs excite and engage a range of students, cultivating imagination, collaboration, discipline, and academic success—with demonstrable results. They also provide safe harbors after school, on weekends, and during the evenings for children and youth in some of our country’s most at-risk urban and rural settings.
The 12 awardees—chosen from a pool of more than 251 nominations and 50 finalists—were also recognized for improving literacy and language abilities, communication and performance skills, and cultural awareness.
First presented in 1998, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award is the signature program of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The awards are presented annually in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
“Accepting this award from the First Lady of the United States at the White House was an unforgettable experience, and I’m so proud to be part of the first ever LGBTQ organization to receive this honor,” said Weekes. “It’s amazing to see that the power of True Colors’ work in helping make communities a safer space for LGBTQ youth while giving us a place to explore our identity and find our own culture in a way that is recognized and valued.”
True Colors uses a community-based theater approach to provide an outlet and safe space for LGBTQ and allied youth leaders to develop artistically and emotionally, and to empower them to change their communities. The majority of participants are youth of color from urban neighborhoods. Founded in 1994, True Colors is the country’s longest-running queer youth theater program. It serves 150 youth and reaches over 4,000 audience members annually. The powerful impact of the program is illustrated by the fact that 96% of True Colors audience members agreed that they better understood LGBTQ youth issues and would make more supportive choices for the LGBTQ community.
The award was celebrated by a number of its long-time partners and supporters, including Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
“Theater Offensive describes its work with LGBTQ youth as opening ‘new avenues of understanding, awareness and inclusion,’” says Walker. “I cannot imagine a more vital and timely mission. The MCC is proud to be a longtime supporter of Theater Offensive and congratulates all of its supporters, staff, and young artists for this well-deserved honor.”
In addition to the national recognition bestowed by receipt of the prestigious award, True Colors will also receive $10,000 to support its programming and engage more young people from the community.
“We are thrilled to be honored after three nominations and 22 years working with the extraordinary youth who break out of isolation to become creative community leaders in True Colors,” said Abe Rybeck, executive artistic director of The Theater Offensive and founder of True Colors.
“True Colors’ cultural impact over a generation has been instrumental in helping create not only a safe space for LGBTQ youth to express their creativity and tell their stories, but has also contributed to the progress and advances we have seen for the entire LGBTQ community. As we continue to focus on the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth, from family rejection to bullying to homelessness, this honor is inspirational and a validation of our impact. Just as importantly, this inclusive group of talented youth exemplifies America’s dynamic cultural intersections. These are the creative young leaders our overlapping communities need to overcome bigotry and jointly build a more harmonious future. To have affirmation from the highest levels of the arts and the White House is extraordinary,” concluded Rybeck.
“These amazing programs prove how effective creative youth development can be in changing lives and communities,” said Megan Beyer, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. “They’re improving academic achievement and contributing to high school graduation rates, and they’re providing the opportunity for young people to build the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in school and in life.”
Created in 1982 by Executive Order, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) is an advisory committee to the White House on cultural issues. The PCAH works directly with the administration and the three primary cultural agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)—as well as with other federal partners and the private sector, to address policy questions in the arts and humanities, to initiate and support key programs in those disciplines, and to recognize excellence in the field. Its core areas of focus are arts and humanities education, cultural exchange, and community revitalization. Mrs. Obama, like other first ladies before her, serves as Honorary Chairman of the committee, which comprises both private and public members.