Phoenix House Uses the West Side Story Project to Disrupt the Cycle of Youth Violence

In September 2011, Phoenix House, one of the nation’s leading non-profit providers of substance abuse treatment, received a two-year grant from the Department of Justice to address the issue of youth violence using a curriculum called the West Side Story Project. For the past year, Phoenix House has been working with young adults at six of our program sites to deconstruct cultural stereotypes, build relationships with members of law enforcement, and promote peaceful conflict resolution – using themes and content from the musical West Side Story.
Funded via the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the West Side Story Project got its start in Seattle in 2007, with the goal of increasing the capacity of law enforcement agencies to positively interact with at-risk kids through community partnerships. Phoenix House is fortunate to have had the project’s creator, Anna Laszlo, guiding our implementation of the grant across the country. Our work would not be possible without the participation of police departments in Arlington, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles and Santa Ana, California; and New York City and Suffolk County, New York.

The West Side Story Project curriculum is a perfect fit for the young people Phoenix House serves, many of whom come from disadvantaged communities and have experienced juvenile justice system and gang involvement. A wonderful side-effect of the grant is that it gives underserved youth access to theatre arts, many for the first time, and to the proven therapeutic value of creative expression.
During role reversal exercises, police officers act out scenes as Jets, the fictional gang immortalized with their “rivals” the Sharks in West Side Story, while youth assume the part of Officer Krupke. To kick start a dialogue about cultural differences, everyone performs from both a Jet’s and a Shark’s point of view. These roles are discussed in terms of the participants’ real-life experiences with crime, racism, stereotypes, and violence. Inevitably, commonalities are found and lasting relationships are built.
We have witnessed many meaningful interactions between youth and police officers since last September – many “Aha!” moments as both the young adults and the officers achieved a greater understanding of one another. Milestones include a Youth Summit in California that highlighted artwork and performances by the adolescents in our Los Angeles program, inspired by their participation in the West Side Story Project. The young adults in our New York City program got to work on the curriculum with Broadway veteran Norm Lewis, who was nominated for a Tony award this year for his starring role in Porgy and Bess.
Phoenix House is grateful to be able to provide the youth in our programs with the positive and life-changing experiences participating in the West Side Story Project provides, and looks forward to another successful year working with our wonderful theatre partners, local law enforcement agencies, and other community stakeholders to end the cycle of youth violence.

Amy Singer is a Senior Vice President and Director of Public/Private Partnerships & Business Development at Phoenix House. She previously chaired the National Advisory Committee for Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Reclaiming Futures initiative. Prior to her tenure at Phoenix House, Ms. Singer worked as Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Planning and Programs for the New York City Department of Correction; Assistant Secretary for Criminal Justice, Boston, MA; and Chief of the Victim Witness Service Bureau in Cambridge, MA. Ms. Singer holds a B.A. from American University and an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, where she was selected as the Arthur D. Little Fellow.

Updated: September 12 2012