United African Organization

West Side Teens Make Global Connections at African Youth Forum

May 8, 2016NancyBlog

By  Vickie Casanova Willis

AfriCaribbean ArtsConnections (formerly known as West Side Story AfriCaribbean Drums & Dance) is a cultural education After School Matters program incorporating dance, music, and textile art to help teens connect to their roots from the West Side of Chicago, throughout the city, to Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. Founder and Director Vickie Casanova Willis created this program nearly 10 years ago, to help teens discover the physical, emotional, and mental benefits of the arts in an apprenticeship program that provides dance and drumming experiences, global engagement, life skills, and training in various arts techniques of the African diaspora. Activities each semester include guest speakers, performances, and collaborative events within the community plus college connections.

The talented teen apprentices in this unique After School Matters program recently spent a day visiting the continents of Africa and South America without ever buying a passport or leaving Chicago! They did this all during a special Saturday field trip to one of their favorite annual events, the African Youth Forum hosted by the United African Organization (UAO) on the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology, at 35th and State Street on the city’s South Side.

The UAO and its African Youth Forum

The United African Organization is “a dynamic coalition of African community-based organizations that promotes social and economic justice, civic participation, and empowerment of African immigrants and refugees in Illinois.” This was their 5th Annual African Youth Forum, a day devoted to helping young people of African descent make connections and gain a better sense of who they are. The event activities included entertaining and educational performances, a cultural gallery walk, great food, and workshops on key topics of interest to youth and families, like education, employment, immigration, incarceration, and this year’s delightful “What do you know about Africa?”

 Teen Feedback on their “Global” Experience Day Trip

Casanova Willis ensures that her students incorporate language arts and critical thinking skills in their performance studies of the African diaspora, so as part of their thank you notes for the UAO hosts, AfriCaribbean ArtsConnections teens shared the following reflections:

“I learned a lot at the African Youth Forum. They told a lot about different African organizations in Chicago. They had people perform; we also performed. They gave us food and set up displays. We talked to people about different things.” LaDonna L., age 14

“I learned a lot about Brazil. I liked how everyone explained their part of Africa. I enjoyed talking with people and eating food I never tried [before]. I would love to visit again.” Fantasia R., age 17

“One thing I learned is always keep happy and don’t be mad. Also, people say that I did a good job dancing [a solo from my mothers’ culture in Nigeria]. I met people from a different part of Africa plus people where I come from. I think I did a good job and I love talking to people and learning new things.” Arione G., age 16

“The African Youth Forum ’16 is a great experience for everyone to have. Everything we saw was different. The food was different [from what I usually eat] but it was still good. I also had fun performing. I had a great time!” Jamaya B., age 16

“The trip was a wonderful experience. The performances were great. The food was good too. Yummy!” Arielle W., age 16 (The chicken, rice, cabbage and plantains from Yassa African Restaurant were a hit!)

And our UAO hosts’ feedback for the interactive dance activity and performance excerpt from our group was equally positive. “We really appreciate you and the After School Matters team! Thank you so much for making the African Youth Forum so much fun, interactive and successful.” said Ms. Nancy Asirifi-Otchere.

The African Youth Forum is an annual event open to the public, and as these teens indicated, it is an excellent way to learn about people, places, and things related to the rich diversity of African countries and cultural influences as well as how they connect directly to our own experiences right here in the U.S. Chicago has a large, diverse, and vibrant African, Caribbean, and South/Central American community which is reaching out across generations and issues areas to connect with each other, and with others who are not African-born or -raised but who have a shared heritage, concerns, and experiences as Black people. We say, THANK YOU, and GREAT JOB, to the United African Organization on their 5th Annual African Youth Forum! It was another excellent teaching and learning opportunity.

“The African Youth Forum was a good experience. Seeing other cultures at the event was amazing! I learned a lot about the different parts of Africa as well.” Myracle O., age 16

“The African Youth Forum was good. I enjoyed it very much. I learned that Brazil was where Michael Jackson did his video They Don’t Really Care About Us. It was very interesting learning about different African cultures.” Mystique O., age 16

“My reflection on the United African Organization Youth Forum is that I was scared at first [because it was new to me and we had to go all the way across town]. Something interesting about the event is that the jerk chicken was “on fleek” – really delicious. Another interesting thing was how organized the discussions were, and also no one talking out of hand [even with the hard topics, immigration, incarceration, unemployment]. The musician (guest artist Abraham Mellish) was excellent!” Imani M., age 17

Casanova-Willis was more than satisfied at her students’ success in stepping out of their comfort zones, being open to expanding their horizons, creating connections to people and places they never imagined traveling to, and finding common ground. “When we look at the International Baccalaureate (IB) trend in top high schools we know that global proficiency and understanding is important for success in the 21st century and into the future.” This is one way she is helping to prepare our students for future leadership roles, right now.

To learn more about AfriCaribbean ArtsConnections After School Matters teen apprenticeship and Advance Apprenticeship programming, upcoming performances and volunteer opportunities, contact the Founder/Director at vickie.casanova@yahoo.com. Website http://africaribbeanarts.weebly.com/

Mrs. V. Casanova-Willis is an artist, educator, and PhD Candidate in Global and Comparative Education. She loves teaching, learning, dances of the world, and teens.

After School Matters provides Chicago high school teens with high-quality, out-of-school time opportunities to explore their talents while gaining critical skills for work, college and beyond. Applications for Summer 2016 programs are now open. Apply at afterschoolmatters.org.

All photo credits: United African Organization 2016

Some AfriCaribbean ArtsConnections ASM teens and an Exhibitor at UAO’s African Youth Forum’16










UAO’s African Youth Forum’16


AfriCaribbean ArtsConnection teen Arione G. demonstrating dance movements from Northern Nigeria in her family tradition.

ASM – AfriCaribbean Arts Connections Teens lead interactive African dance circle

Trying new foods is part of global learning and cultural appreciation


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