Summer Opportunities for Young Writers: A Conversation with Alia Walston of the Chicago High School for the Arts’ ChiArts Summer Program


Note: This is a sponsored post.

The ChiArts Summer Program is a three-week summer camp designed for students in grades K-5 and 6-8 to explore the artistic disciplines of Dance, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts in a joyful and nurturing environment, led by artists from the Chicago High School for the Arts. Campers will receive pre-professional training in the arts and create original pieces for performance and showcase.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Alia Walston, one of the folks behind the program, to learn more about its mission and operation. Read on to learn more! 

Let’s start simple: We’d love to hear what led to the creation of the Chicago High School for the Arts’s summer programs for elementary and middle school artists. Is there a story there?

ChiArts is a relatively new school, we have only been open since 2009, and we came to be as an institution came to be as a way to fill the gaps in public arts education in Chicago. Before ChiArts’ opened, there were no public arts high schools in the city. By extension, our summer camps were started as a way to support the artistic growth of young people and to get our name out to our communities in Chicago.

If you could describe the ChiArts summer programs for young writers and artists in three words, what would they be, and why?

Intensive, joyful, and nurturing.

What, in your mind, is the biggest benefit of attending a summer program at ChiArts rather than, say, at another institution with writing opportunities for young writers? 

ChiArts is home to such an amazing team of diverse students, teachers, and alumni. We prioritize compassion, responsibility, and meeting our students where they are at artistically, academically, and personally. We pride ourselves on our social-emotional supports and all of this work absolutely extends to our summer camps. Our camps are led by current ChiArts instructors and alumni, which means that the folks who are working with us are truly dedicated to our mission and supporting the whole child.

Switching gears a bit, I often hear from young writers who are hesitant to call themselves poets, writers, or artists. This has always struck me as strange—in my mind, if you produce writing, you’re a writer—no matter your age, stage, or level of development. Then, of course, it becomes about developing your voice, and figuring out what you have to say. Do you agree with the notion that all writers are “writers”? If so, how do you think educators can better facilitate the claiming of this identity?

I love this question because it’s something that I think a lot about in my own practice. For the most part, I find that labels can be really limiting and ultimately do a disservice to people, especially young folks. Young people often believe they have to follow a regimented or strict plan in order to find success in their artistic careers. And if there’s anything I know from my own career, there is no one set road to success and curiosity rules everything. One thing we do at ChiArts is we encourage our scholar-artists to expand their vision of what is possible in their practices, whether they decide to pursue a career in the arts or if they choose to follow another path. Own your talents. Embrace your uniqueness. Celebrate your accomplishments. Those are the most important things, way more than any labels!


Here’s a left-field two-part question: what was your biggest fear as a young writer or artist, and what’s your biggest fear as an educator?

As a young writer, I was terrified of not being understood. I really wanted to reach folks on an emotional level, but it took a lot of work to get to the point where I could feel safe in exploring vulnerability, which I think is a really key part of being an artist.

As an educator, I pride myself on being accessible, radically honest, and compassionate. If I am not doing any of those things, I am failing my students. So my biggest fears are wrapped up in making sure that I am present and available enough to always act with integrity and consistency.

I know back when I was a teen writer and I had the privilege of attending a summer writing program like the ones you host at ChiArts, I wish I’d known some things before I dove headfirst into writing for three straight weeks. What are the best words of wisdom you have for students debating whether or not to take that leap and seriously pursue an artistic discipline for the first time?

Three weeks is a long time and also no time at all. This program and what you produce in it do not reflect your worth as a person. You are inherently valuable. Think of our program as an invitation for you to play, stretch, and learn more about yourself. When you see camp ( or any other program you pursue) as an opportunity for expression and presence, and not just a task to check off on a “success to-do list”, all kinds of flow and creativity is possible.

Could you tell us what your favorite part of the summer programs is, and why?

It is so awesome to see our building filled with smiling young faces of all ages. It is such a joy to be present with our students in a low-pressure environment and while the sun is shining!

To close, do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice  by an artist or writer that’d you’d like to share?

Audre Lord once said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Being a creative is a perpetual lesson in vulnerability. It takes strength, care, and vision to bring forth things from your intuition. Believe in yourselves!

To learn more about the ChiArts Summer Program, you can click here!

Peter LaBerge

Peter LaBerge founded The Adroit Journal in 2010, as a high school sophomore. His work appears in Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. He is the recipient of a 2020 Pushcart Prize.

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