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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'Listen Up Project,' 'Black Voices of Vermont' Productions Amplify Teen Voices

Three portraits of Vermont teenagers.
Courtesy, Listen Up Project - Kingdom County Productions
Vermont teens (from left) Elyse Martin Smith, Yeshua Armbrister and Jojo Michaelson are part of the Black Voices of Vermont project.

Listen Up Project is an original musical created by Kingdom County Productions and built around stories from the lives of Vermont teens. Due to the pandemic, the main production's tour was postponed until later this spring. In the meantime, show choreographer Shani Stoddard helped put together a collaborative story-sharing project called Black Voices of Vermont.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Shani Stoddard and Vermont teen Elyse Martin Smith. Their conversation is below, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: I wanted to check in with you ...and ask how the [Listen Up] Project works?

Shani Stoddard: The Listen Up Project is an original Vermont musical production that is based off of over 800 interviews and conversations and workshops with Vermont teens. And so we started this project almost a couple of years ago at this point, and then we were scheduled to tour in the fall of 2020.

Obviously, just like, you know, many, many different things — theater productions especially — we postponed. And we found a way to sort of continue our journey as a theater company and reworked some of the current events into our script and into this show. And then my role as choreographer, obviously also, you know, came to a halt when we sort of pushed pause on this.

Yeah, Shani, talk more about that. How did you continue with Listen Up Project during COVID-19?

Shani Stoddard: As team members, we all sort of adopted these — what we started to call — labs, to keep, you know, eyes on this project. But also to keep our teenagers involved and to keep everybody motivated, I decided to create with Kingdom County Productions and the Listen Up Project ... Black Voices of Vermont, which is a collaborative story-sharing project.

And for me, that was a way for us to keep some of the teenagers involved that were part of this show, but then also sort of move in a new direction and sort of hone in on the conversation that is being had amongst young Black voices, in particular.

Elyse Martin Smith, [you’re] one of the teens part of the Black Voices Project. Elyse, talk a little bit about yourself and your experience growing up in Vermont.

Elyse Martin Smith: I am a senior at CVU High School, and I got involved with the Listen Up Project because I was interviewed as part of the earlier stages of the project when they were trying to formulate a musical based on the experiences of Vermonters. And I was really lucky to be a part of that first group.

"I know of so many students who are really involved in social justice work and so many other projects who would be happy to talk and would love a platform." — Elyse Martin Smith, CVU High School senior

Pre-pandemic, what did it look like for you in terms of the Listen Up Project and the musical itself?

Elyse Martin Smith: There was a group of students that was selected by teachers and recommended to be a part of this project.

And we all sat in a room with Bess O'Brien, who is one of the leaders of the Listen Up Project. And we just talked and explained where we came from. Personally, I have two dads, and as a Black Vermonter, it's a very different experience. And then we also had someone who was part of the basketball team and who was really involved in that life. It was all about getting different experiences in the same room and talking about what their life is like, what's difficult, what's interesting to them. And I thought that was just such a unique experience. And I wish that happened outside of this project.

Tell me more about that. Why is it important for teens' voices to be heard?

Elyse Martin Smith: Including young people is so important. It really comes down to interpersonal relationships like reaching out to students, because I know of so many students who are really involved in social justice work and so many other projects who would be happy to talk and would love a platform.

It's so important to look for youth voices. So I was really excited that Bess O'Brien started this initiative from kind of a top-down way. And I think that's kind of the best way to reach kids, by showing them that their voice is valued and interested, and then they will in turn be more interested in whatever the other people have to say as well.

And Elyse, this storytelling project you were working on, you were able to post some audio on Instagram and sort of tell your own story. Can you talk a little bit about the story you shared, specifically about taking a DNA test.

Elyse Martin Smith: So I have written an essay as well, about my DNA test. But I had always thought that taking a DNA test would answer all of my questions about my identity. I always wanted to know who my mother is, with a family of two dads, that's something I always wanted to know.

I often say the hardest question on the SAT used to be, for me, "Which race are you?" That used to be the hardest box for me to check. And I thought by taking a DNA test, that'll solve everything. But it didn't.  I don't know why I thought that spitting into a tube would give me all of my answers.

The real work had to come from me. I am treated [as] and I am a Black person of color. And it really took me a long time to feel confident saying that. I think I've reached a point where I'm able to say that and I'm proud to say that.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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