Sera Harris – Winner of the CALI Award

Our newest CALI Award winner is Sera Harris. Sera takes us inside the Creative Youth Initiative studios where staff run creative programs three days a week in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Creative Youth Initiative involves students from diverse backgrounds, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to freely express themselves and learn new techniques in art and music.

Q: Tell us about the Creative Youth Initiative.

Sera: Creative Youth Initiatives (CYI) is a youth service that was established by Mission Australia in 1993.

It was through the day to day practice of working with young people experiencing homelessness in Sydney’s inner city, that it became evident that these young people had powerful feelings about their experiences that they found difficult to express in traditional ‘treatment’ settings.

Although the programs that were piloted (‘Sounds of the Street’ in 1993, ‘Artworks’ in 1995 as well as other creative workshops) had no stated therapeutic aim, young people participating in the programs stated that they derived therapeutic benefit as they explored their feelings and personal challenges through creative expression.

The service, currently housed in the basement level of the Mission Australia Centre Surry Hills, has four music studios, one large art studio with framing area, as well as one student common room and staff rooms. The creative programs run three days a week and are staffed by five part time and two full time workers.

Creative Youth Initiative Artworks! Program
Lino printing is one of the many workshops we run as part of the Artworks! program

Q: What are the issues that young people face before entering your program?

Sera: The issues that young people involved in CYI can face are diverse, as are the students themselves. Young people face challenges such as homelessness, mental health issues, substance abuse, family breakdown, unemployment, social isolation and poor educational experiences.

Referrals to the program come from a range of sources such as youth services, community organisations, mental health services, supported accommodation services, counsellors, schools, juvenile justice, probation & parole and TAFE.

Young people can also refer themselves or can be referred by their families. Students come from extremely diverse cultural, social, emotional and geographical backgrounds, although all students share a desire and passion to express themselves creatively, through art and music.

Creative Youth Initiative Album Launch “Sticky”
Stage view from the 2012 Album Launch “Sticky”

Q: How does creative expression empower people?

Sera: The art and music facilities were the main reasons students were drawn to CYI courses. Before entering the program, students had wanted to find a way to get into TAFE, to make a portfolio to support them as artists and to pursue their dreams. One student stated that what they wanted to get out of the program was “just to actually finish something,” to which most students agreed.

Creative Youth Initiative printed album cover
The last CD format Creative Youth Initiative will ever print

“To be able to have the opportunity to record, to work with proper producers, proper programs in a proper studio, for free, I was like, done! I don’t know anywhere else that has what you guys have and the skill and also let people use it for free.”

Creative Youth Initiative Album Launch "Rebel Clef"
Crowd at our recent album launch “Rebel Clef” Feb 2013 – Photo: Damien Ford

The best people to answer this are the students themselves. Students have previously given feedback on the things they like about CYI:

“Having a space to do art without distractions, having access to supplies, feeling more productive, having a sense of direction”

“The overall freedom to do your own works. The workshops & access to materials”

“That I could express myself freely, that I learnt a few new art techniques, that it provided space for me from the world”

“I like pretty much every moment I spent at CYI this year. CYI artworks program has opened my eyes up to a whole new attitude towards life. CYI has reassured me that I want to go back to school”

“I got the chance to express myself through songs and learnt new skills”

“I liked how I could come here and express my feelings and emotions in my compositions and music”

We have just completed a research snapshot into how the use of arts and music can engage young people back into education. Many international studies are showing that there is a strong evidence base to use the creative arts as a tool for creating positive change in young people’s lives.

Creative Youth Initiative Album Launch - The Sounds of the Street music program
From the launch of our Sounds of the Street music program – Photo: Damien Ford

Q: How do you measure your success over the last 20 years of operations?

Sera: Young people’s own perspectives on the effectiveness of CYI are considered paramount in the process of measuring ‘outcomes’.

From the 2010 cohort of students, 50% of the young people who graduated from CYI went on to further education. In 2011 83% of students and in 2012 68% of students went on from CYI into further education, training or employment.

It is not the explicit or sole aim of the CYI to assist students into employment or facilitate education access. Outcomes are dependent on the student’s present stage in life and their own identified goals. For example, a student recovering from a drug addiction may require assistance to focus on maintaining stable housing and work through abstaining from drug use.

Another student may instead decide to prepare to enter into skills training at TAFE and require support in applying for the course and creating a portfolio. In this way, the role of the Student Support Coordinator is crucial in assisting the student to identify goals that they can work towards completing.

Creative Youth Initiative Art Studio
Creative Youth art studio where the Artworks! students explore their creativity

Q: How do you raise funds for the program?

Sera: Creative Youth Initiative has a range of funding sources including Mission Australia, the Sir David Martin Foundation, Alberts….. and individual donors from the community. We also have a range of corporate partnerships and strong support from other community organisations.

CYI receives no government funding at all, and relies heavily on charitable donations of goods and services.

Creative Youth Initiative Artworks! Program
Student working on an ink painting

Q: What do you think makes this project so special?

Sera: The young people and their courage to share something personal through creativity – which becomes a tangible product and a representation of their personal growth and development.

As well there is the amazingly supportive and collaborative team at CYI and their dedication, enthusiasm and desire to make positive change in young people’s lives using creativeness, imagination, hope and support.

Creative Youth Initiative Team
Creative Youth Initiative staff from our recent 20th anniversary event

CYI is a unique service that looks at the young person from a relationship based and strengths based perspective. It sees the young person as an artist / musician and negative labels are discarded, reframing the way the young person views themselves.

Using a holistic case management approach, CYI acknowledges that the young people who access the creative programs are entitled to supports that cover all of their needs (emotional, mental, physical, social, financial, housing etc). The role of the Student Support Co-ordinator supports the young person whilst at CYI.

At CYI, a sense of belonging, a sense of community (even family) is developed. During their time at CYI, the students find a place where they can feel safe to be themselves and to express themselves.

Sera Harris completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts from COFA UNSW with a major in photomedia and after working in the field of commercial photography came to the realisation that it was the people on the other side of the lens that she was more interested in.

She completed a Bachelor of Social work (Honours) from Uni of Syd and has practiced in the areas of community development, mental health and has been part of the Creative Youth Initiative (CYI) since 2003 in various roles and manager for the last 5 years. Sera also teaches at University of Western Sydney and offers support to social work students from the Australian Catholic University.

Connect with Sera through Creative Youth Initiative


Want more inspiration?

The CALI Award

4 thoughts on “Sera Harris – Winner of the CALI Award”

  1. Sera, this is a project after my own heart! So many young people struggle with finding a way to express themselves and like you quote, even have a chance to finish something. What you are doing will have positive repercussions for years to come for these young people and I take my hat off to you! Congratulations 🙂

  2. A fine story to hear about. So easy to forget that you can help no matter where you are in the world. People just need redirection sometimes. I really love that idea of re-inventing who they are in terms of art.

  3. I love the diversity of people receiving CALI awards. Fantastic to see Sera’s project in Surry Hills. The arts are the best way to connect and heal! I love the photos of the artworks … so much talent and commitment.


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