The West Side Story Project: Q+A with Anna Laszlo

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Anna Laszlo is the creator of the West Side Story Project (WSSP), which began in Seattle and is now being implemented at six Phoenix House locations. This week, Anna will visit the WSSP at our Phoenix House Career Academy. She will be joined by Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Phoenix House: This is such a unique collaborative project. Where on earth did you get the idea for it?

Anna Laszlo: The project started in Seattle in 2007. At the time I was serving on the board of directors of the 5th Avenue Theatre, and the theatre was planning a production of West Side Story to mark the musical’s 50th anniversary. The themes of the show really resonated with me as a criminal justice researcher—the guns, the gangs, and the violence that young people had to face back then and continue to face today. The idea popped into my head that I could merge the two loves of my life – theater and criminal justice – in a citywide collaborative partnership between the theater and the police department. These organizations could work together to teach youth about violence prevention and how to make real positive changes in their communities.

PH: Was it difficult to turn that dream into a reality?

AL: Surprisingly, no! I approached David Armstrong, the theater’s Producing Artistic Director, and Bill Berry, the show’s Director—and they both loved the idea. It wasn’t hard to get the Seattle Police Department on board because, at the time, my husband was the Chief of Police. Although, when I first told him about the idea his response was: “Anna, don’t go bothering all those nice people, the project will never get legs.” Boy, was he wrong! The theatre already had an education outreach initiative, and the Seattle Police Department was already doing work in the community and schools, trying to reach at-risk youth. West Side Story provided the common tool that both organizations could use to serve a common mission. Why not engage teens and police officers in dialogues about the real-life themes that come up in West Side Story? It just made so much sense.

PH: And how did Phoenix House come into the picture?

AL: Well the Seattle program really hit the ground running; we got five high schools involved, and pretty soon other community organizations were coming out of the woodwork to offer their assistance with our city-wide youth summits: the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute…the list goes on. We also held a public policy forum based on the themes of the song, “Officer Krupke,” which addressed issues of risk and resiliency and how police, social services, and the juvenile justice system in Seattle could better serve youth. The Seattle Times did a front-page story about our youth summits and the unique collaboration between the SPD and the 5th Avenue, which brought us national and international attention. Then, in 2009, the Seattle Police Foundation submitted a proposal to the United States Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to develop a toolkit for replicating the West Side Story Project in other communities. They got funding for two additional sites, and that’s how the Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles became our first Phoenix House site.

PH: Are you surprised at how well the program has been received?

AL: Very. I really thought the project would be confined to a single event, but it took on a life of its own in Seattle and was so embraced at Phoenix House. Everyone’s been talking about the fabulous work that’s going on in the project at the Phoenix House Career Academylocation, which is collaborating with the NYPD and PossibleArts. I’m excited to visit the project and see what’s going on, to meet the clients and the cops, to show up in my jeans and sweatshirt and take part in some of their theater exercises—to really participate.

PH: What are some of the program’s key lessons and takeaways?

AL: There’s the artistic component, for one. We’re helping young people use the arts to really express their feelings in a healthy way. We encourage them to think twice about the arts in general and musical theater in particular. Musical theater is not just about dancing and singing; historically, American musicals have taken on lots of social issues around race, bias and prejudice, substance abuse, and youth violence. It’s a marvelous teaching tool. Then there’s the key component of the project, which is breaking down stereotypes, especially between youth and police officers. Before entering the program, most of these young people haven’t had good experiences with the police, and vice versa. Kids and cops alike say, “If you’d told me I’d be doing this year ago, I’d have said you were crazy.” But they truly grow from it; they build relationships and learn to see each other not as stereotypes but as individuals who care about each other and want to make improvements in society. It’s a real eye-opener for them—for all of us. Finally, the project provides an opportunity for police departments and community-based organizations to launch new, perhaps unprecedented, partnerships that serve our kids and our communities well. The lesson learned is that “impossible” partnerships ARE possible if we just take those first few steps.

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