Teens make their voices heard through the power of ‘Her Words’

By Jillian Risberg 

Her Words staff counselor Karen Jones-Williams, LCSW, with a teen participant in the 2021 Her Words Summer Program.

Her Words provide a strong, trusted environment and opportunities for a population of teens growing up in an incredibly challenging time — and that means everything. 


“It is critically important for teen girls and gender-expansive youth to have a program that empowers them to share their stories, shape their futures, and create change in their lives and communities,” says program director Ellen Papazian. 

Youth (ages 14-18) participate in expressive writing and creative arts workshops; learn about self-care strategies and issues that matter to them; collaborate on a creative group project (often an original play that reflects issues they are concerned about, led by staff or visiting teaching artists) and create fellowship with other teens in a supportive community. 


For Carolina Escobar, it sounded like she would have a greater chance of being heard considering the other girls may relate to the majority of the problems they face.


“And writing about these problems or anything else we might have on our mind takes this load off of our shoulders, plus we are able to create a strong bond with one another since everyone is so understanding,” the 17-year-old says. 


According to Papazian, they will check-in with each other about how they are doing — this is a time of honest sharing of experiences and active listening to each other about their lives.


They will engage in a self-care or wellness activity; write expressively and share their writing; participate in a writing or other arts-related workshop that focuses on developing their craft as writers or storytellers; theater games to develop their skills and confidence as speakers and performers. 


It is life-changing for the teens to write about issues relevant to their lives and tap into their personal voices.

“Each teen who participates in Her Words can share a unique, personal story of how the program has transformed their lives in some capacity,” says the program director. “Whether it be their self-confidence as writers/performers, self-confidence when sharing their work in front of others or as creative collaborators in an endeavor like writing and presenting an original play.”

Papazian calls transformation an individual experience and what may look like minor growth to some is earth-shattering growth for another.

“I have witnessed teens transform their lives in deeply personal and profound ways that are unique to each of them,” she says. 


Nayeli Perez says she probably would not have the camaraderie nor the opportunities to speak in front of people during the play without Her Words. 

“Before joining the program, I only had about one to two close friends who I already knew,” the 17-year-old says. “After the program, I met more friends with whom we are still in contact.” 


The mental health crisis faced by American teens has been well-documented of late and the challenges these teens face in a polarized political and cultural climate in our country makes it more vital than ever for them to have a supportive, trusted space where they can share their experiences and transform these experiences into art.


“It reminds me of the poet Ocean Vuong, who has said that as a writer he ‘wanted to start with truth and end with art,’” says Papazian. “That’s exactly the kind of alchemy that takes place in Her Words — the teen participants start with their truth and end by creating art together; whether it be in the form of an original play, original book or zine of their writings.”


Escobar knows just what that’s like. If she hadn’t joined Her Words and been able to express her voice like this she says her life would look drastically different. 

The program empowers her to do and achieve things that she’s passionate about, drive her and ultimately serve her. 

“Before I joined the program, I was a timid girl and didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise,” the 17-year-old says the activities and plays they created during the summer program helped unlock something inside her and brought out a creativity she didn’t know she had. 

The program creates a safe, trusting, inclusive and supportive environment for teens, according to Papazian, where they can share real lived experiences and not be judged for it. 


“They know the adults and youth in the program hear them, see them and support them,” she says this place of trust is the foundation of all of the creative work we do together.” 


The staff pays attention to the needs of their program participants and makes space to center different voices.  

“We also meet the teens where they are and help them grow as people and artists at their own pace, reaching milestones that are important for them. We give them the time and space to share, listen to, and support one another — and then create exciting, relevant and honest creative work from that space,” says the program director.  


She loves facilitating a program that has such a dedicated staff, including Morris School District counselor Karen Jones-Williams, LCSW and counselor Jehimy Romero, LSW — who support the teen’s social and emotional growth.

And Papazian has worked alongside youth leaders like Neyda Siguencia, a Her Words group leader, as well as a former teen participant in the program.  

These teen girls and gender-expansive youth can join the program summer before their ninth-grade year and remain in it through summer after 12th grade, which has allowed the program director to see many of them grow into incredible youth mentors, artists, writers, change-makers, thinkers and all around compelling, creative, compassionate and intelligent youth who truly care for their peers and community. 


“I’ve been able to meet female-identified and nonbinary teens who never cease to amaze me with their creative gifts and bravery as young artists, thinkers and creative collaborators,” she says.


Established in 2005, Her Words (formerly Girls Surviving) was founded by teaching artists Paula Davidoff and Carolyn Hunt, who often worked with “at risk” teens. As ‘word artists,’ telling stories through writing and drama was the program they envisioned.

It has been cathartic for the teens to share their writing and their truth. 

“We forget the joy of attending school since elementary school. We forget how important our mental health is. We forget to care about our happiness. We forget to just be a teenager.” ~ Perez


Escobar says sometimes the stories they all share are so powerful it inspires her to write her own, like her monologue, The sun is out but in my head it’s raining.

“I make it fourth place and it’s not good for you but I’ve sacrificed everything in order to just participate in the race, it took everything in me not to finish last place. When you see me in person with a smile on my face, just know I made a big choice that day. A choice that allowed my mother to see her daughter for one more day. That choice is a cassette tape, I place it into the player and watch as all of my sorrow is just tucked away. At the end of the day, the tape is unraveled, torn and my head feels like it’s going to break.” 


The 17-year-old was unsure of her path but connecting with the other girls helped her gain confidence to go after the things she wanted. 

“I think my life would have gone downhill, the program really saved me,” she says she was stuck in this dark place and Her Words helped her see there was light. “Without their guidance, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.”


For more information, visit www.herwordsnj.com


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