Graffiti may not seem like the best vehicle of reform for gang members and drug addicts, but to Usiel Barrios, or Progreso as he is known in his community, the basic tenets of hip hop culture -- graffiti, break dancing, MC-ing, and DJ-ing -- play a vital role in his youth outreach programs in Tucson, Arizona.
At 18 years old, Progreso was already involved in community work, working fulltime in drug and alcohol and gang prevention at a Tucson social services agency. He recognized that the young people he worked with were already influenced by hip-hop culture and was frustrated by attempts to redirect them by discounting hip-hop, labeling it a negative influence.
With this in mind, Progreso and his friend Spencer Brummer co-founded RebelArte Collective and launched their first program, ELEMENTary Hip Hop Skool, in 2009. ELEMENTary Hip Hop Skool aims to use hip-hop to get young people involved in community building. They look to achieve their goals--to empower young people with leadership skills, encourage positive self-expression, and promote community involvement--through hip hop culture.
"We needed to somehow flip the influence so we decided to use hip-hop and the culture of hip-hop to lure young people and re-guide them," Progreso said. "Instead of hoping to grab their attention away from what they're doing, we had to get them interested by going to where they're at already. What better way than hip-hop?"
So far the group has focused their efforts on their park jams, a program to provide a positive outlet for young people and get the community behind ELEMENTary Hip-Hop Skool's efforts.
"We go to areas where there is a lot of gang activity and drug and alcohol use. We set up speakers and turntables and boards for graffiti. We notice right away that these are people who have never seen something like this," Progreso said, explaining the park jam events. "They don't have the resources to be able to get involved in something positive. All these young people come out and at the least, it's something positive for them to do on a Saturday and we can have some dialogue with them."
Progreso admits that the group has encountered roadblocks because of their unique approach to youth outreach.
"With potential supporters, we hit that wall. The people who aren't familiar with the positive aspects of hip-hop or the positive influence it can have shy away. We have and keep working to break that barrier and establish a positive connection," he said.
This February, ELEMENTary Hip Hop Skool will incorporate some programming about Black History Month into their events. "Hip-hop was born in the African American community, so we're definitely celebrating that. This month, our park jam will be focused on black history month and how to make it current."
They're also focused on their next big initiative, ELEMENTal Education, an after-school program that will offer more opportunities for young people to get involved in their communities and schools through community building and beautification projects.
Progreso hopes his efforts will change the way his community views the role of young people.
"A lot of people mistakenly look over young people. It's important people we see we can get involved and create change in our communities."