Empowering Youth

Organization draws on the arts to help kids build a brighter future.

For more than two decades, Release the Fear CEO and founder Robert Miley has helped high-risk youth and adults throughout Arizona become empowered to combat social pressures and make better life choices. Recognized by the Arizona Department of Education as a Character Education Provider, Miley and his team of trained facilitators provide workshops to youth in schools, juvenile detention centers and jails. The curriculum draws on art, music and communication to teach problem-solving skills and conflict resolution while fostering self-worth and a positive way of thinking.

“We believe there is no such thing as a bad kid,” says Miley, who was recently awarded the 2016 Governor’s Arts Award for Education. “They just haven’t found their gifts yet.”

So far, results of the program are promising. A recent three-year longitudinal study of 928 youth, conducted by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, showed an 11 percent reduction in recidivism.

“We helped to do that,” says Miley, whose organization has drawn the attention of the White House and the National Endowment for the Arts. “We get them to see things from a different perspective and communicate.”

Currently in Arizona, there are more than 100,000 youth who do not work or attend school. Through Release the Fear, Miley hopes to help kids without hope or a sense of purpose achieve a brighter future.

“ People ask me, ‘Why do you do this, when you can scribble on paper and people will buy it?’” says Miley. For him, the answer is clear. “ You can’t buy this. There’s no money in the world that could buy this.”

He recalls a recent afternoon at the organization’s downtown Phoenix headquarters when he noticed a young man pacing in front of the window. The man explained to Miley that at age 15, he had attended Release the Fear workshops while incarcerated in the lower Buckeye jail. The skills he learned in the program helped him make positive changes in his life. Found innocent, he was released from probation a year early, had secured a job and looked forward to starting a family.

“He’s on the straight and narrow now. He realized for himself that the program helped him not listen to what other people wanted him to do,” says Miley. “We all want a purpose no matter how young or old you are. And if you don’t know your purpose or have guidance to find a purpose, someone’s going to find it for you and you’re going to think that’s your only option in life.”

For Miley, teaching critical-thinking skills and empathy for others is most effective when students are proactive in the learning process and assume leadership roles.

“If we sat up there and just lectured, it would not stick,” he explains. “Asking why and getting them engaged in thinking stimulates cognitive thinking. We have kids on opposing gangs and all of a sudden, they wind up being on the same team. It’ s really amazing what they learn about each other.”

Miley recalls a special attendee who at first seemed reluctant to communicate. Several workshops later, she summoned the courage to share her story in front of an audience of 800 and is now studying to become a biophysicist.

“I never thought that I’d come this far,” she says. “I always thought that I’d be forever stuck in a downward spiral, trying to commit suicide, and being a brick wall. I finally came to Florence Crittenton, where I was helped by a Release the Fear program that showed me that I am much more than an individual. I am someone—I am great, powerful, loved, amazing, worthy, and a leader.”

“Those are the kinds of gifts we get weekly,” says Miley. “You cannot put a price tag on those kinds of gifts.”

Story by Leigh Farr
Photo by Jill Richards

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