The Art for Social Justice Project & YLS

Art for Social Justice Project (a program of the Youth Leadership for Success Initiative)

The Youth Leadership for Success Initiative fosters youth working independently in the studio, planning and executing their own program and culminating art show.

In 2020, they chose to focus on the topic of Art for Social Justice. The young artists interpreted social justice issues in a variety of expressive media including painting, poetry and digital art.  The areas of social justice that they have chosen to explore include racial injustice and oppression, violence against women, stigma and bullying,  rights of LGBTQ+ persons, freedom of gender expression, body image and gender equality.

Seven guest artists joined the Art for Social Justice project as mentors to discuss their experiences and ideas about social activism in the art world. From diverse backgrounds, they include Pops Peterson, creator of the Reinventing Rockwell series at Norman Rockwell Museum which reinterprets the Four Freedoms from a black perspective (See Katy Holt, creator of the Wifebot art zine which explores gender role expectations of women; Em Reim Ifrach, transgender social activist and art therapist on the theme of body image and gender expression (See; Caroline Kelley, feminine arts activist (See:; Amanda Warriner, Sculpture Artist and LBGTQ+ rights activist; and Emma Lenski, artist and counselor at the Elizabeth Freeman Center (; and Marney Schorr, who chronicles her experience in a psychiatric hospital in oil pastel and acrylic paint. Mentors provide constructive criticism and feedback to the youth artists on their individual works,  demonstrate their own methods and techniques, create art in response to working with the youth group, and share resources such as links, videos or articles.

ART SHOW & OPENING: The Art for Social Justice project showcased these works in a virtual show on the MCLA Gallery 51 website from June 6- August 1, 2021. Youth also participated in an in-person art show and artists talk on Saturday June 12th, 2021 from 3-6 pm at Common Folk Artists Gallery on Holden St in North Adams, MA. For info about the show please visit Proceeds from art sales will help fund the Arts in Recovery for Youth program and support our young artists in their creative endeavors.

Funding for the Art for Social Justice project was provided by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

New England Grassroots Environment Fund awards help solve the problems and realize the promises in addressing climate change and energy action, local food, environmental health and justice, land and water and local economies. For more information, please visit or call 603-905-9915.

The Youth Leadership for Success Initiative aims to reduce risk factors for youth suicide through expressive arts leadership roles for teens and young adults who face multiple barriers in society with the following premises: 

(1) Youth-driven expressive arts leadership roles (such as planning and executing an art show and performance piece at Berkshire Pride Festival) can create a sense of belonging, being needed in a group, and eliminate isolation. 

(2) Expressive arts leadership opportunities (such as working as peer mentors and co-facilitators in the AIRY program) can increase a sense of purpose and eliminate feelings of hopelessness; 

(3) Youth leaders in the AIRY program (such as co-facilitators, peer mentors and studio interns) become positive role models for other youth, modeling social skills, emotion regulation, mastery and problem solving; 

(4) Expressive arts leadership roles (such as planning, designing and publishing a color comic book specific to the current issues young people face) can bolster youth’s workforce skills for future success, enhance self esteem and have a positive impact in the community. 

(5) The YLS model can make learning suicide prevention skills more attractive to other youth, showing them how recovery is possible for their similar-age peers.  

Through the arts, the Youth Leadership for Success (YLS) Initiative builds upon and expands the previous AIRY model to ensure long term suicide prevention and to provide an enhanced level of support to teens and young adults at risk for suicide. YLS recognizes the value of lived experience of youth recovering from feelings of suicide, and helps them build resilience. Our ¨train the trainer¨ model teaches them leadership skills to become peer mentors, studio interns, performing arts planners, curators, group co-facilitators and program assistants. 

The YLS Initiative is funded in part by Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention.


As part of the Youth Leadership for Success (YLS) Inititiave, several young emerging artists have held their own art exhibitions at First Fridays Artswalk in downtown Pittsfield.



Common Folk Artists Gallery, 73 Main St, North Adams MA

‘Elemental’ showcases a diverse body of acrylic and watercolor paintings and digital art, connected by the process of using art as therapy. The Elements of Step Up are based in nature – releasing negative emotions through Fire, balancing emotions by grounding to the Earth, calming and cooling through Water, and accessing wisdom and whimsy through Air and Wind.

The artists hope to convey how art is its own universe, malleable and changing as we change. Art has the power to humble us or make us feel like gods. Art materials stretch us beyond reality while nature’s elements offer insight into our personalities and relationships.


“War Heroes”
Aidan Spaniol at NUarts, 311 North St, Pittsfield

NUarts presents the first solo exhibition of youth artist, Aidan Spaniol during First Fridays Artswalk on September 6, 2019, opening reception from 5-8 pm in the gallery. “War Heroes” features a vast collection of hundreds of original comic drawings on paper, created over a several year period since his childhood. The drawings are inspired by franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, D.C., Dragon Ball, Black Clover and One Piece. Also on display are three Lego sculptures which are the blueprints for Aidan’s comics.

Aidan Spaniol is a fifteen year old comics and graphic artist from Pittsfield, MA. In 2019, he began adding color and size to his comic book characters whose storylines usually involve friends fighting a common enemy to protect what they love. The artist is also exploring acrylic painting using thick brush strokes and a palette of dark and vivid colors like Van Gogh.


On April 5, 2019, First Fridays Artswalk featured the debut art exhibition of 16 year old artist and illustrator, Rachael Bentz. The opening reception for ‘Myth and Nature’ was held from 5-8 pm, and the show is on view through May 30. Myth and Nature features 18 figurative works on paper in alcohol-based marker, colored pencil and watercolor, as well as original digital art. Each piece embodies a narrative myth about the feminine power of the natural world, inspired by emotions and nature expressed in the female form.

Rachael Bentz is a self taught artist and performing musician from Pittsfield. Her art and song were recently featured at the “Love Yourself” event at the Colonial Theatre in February. While this is her first exhibition, drawing and painting have always been her passion, as she plans to attend art school and pursue art as a career. See:


On March 1, 2019 First Fridays Artswalk and Unitarian Universalist Church featured the debut art show of 16 year old artist, Breanna Lytle. ‘Birdie’ featured brand new abstract works on paper and canvas.

The artist described her spontaneous pour method as “putting my emotions and colors into a cup”, in the Feb 10 premiere of the documentary ‘Messages of Hope’ at the Colonial Theatre, where all of Breanna’s works on view have been sold. Proceeds of art sales support the artist in her aspirations with youth leadership in the arts. See: