New Year, New President and HOPE


As we start 2021, we, here in the United States, were faced with an attempted coup, a worsening global pandemic, and hope that comes with a with new leadership. I am choosing to look to the future and envision a world brought together by equal opportunity, respect and open communication. I continue to hold the positive attitude that we can continue to change the world for the betterment of all. 

I may sound like the froofy folk who wear rose-colored glasses, but I had an idea that if we could start dialogue between young people we could develop understanding, respect and trust, which, by using the skills they learn during the intensive, can spread throughout their communities and the world. I still believe in the value of the project. And so, I persist. 

We need connection right now more than ever before in our history. It seems we needed to be sequestered away from everyone to be able to appreciate what we long for…connection, understanding, charity and thought-before action. We need time to make friends, to play, to explore and examine. I needed time to mull, cultivate, germinate and ruminate. 

The Youth Exchange Project is rumbling along after all of that ‘ate-ing’ in the pandemic-zoom-induced-think-tank. Our mission stays the same: To connect teens from differing cultures and experiences for the betterment of all. Our medium of connection…we will see.

Last year we were all virtual, which had its merits – we were able to connect folks from different areas and get more master teachers and guest artists involved. We used film as a tool and played more with language. This year, who knows. Perhaps, we will do a combination virtual and in-person event with two different groups in two different locations. I would love it to culminate in an event that represents the varied cities and cultures emanating from those locales! It’s time to expand our thinking. It’s time to expand our reach. So, keep those dreams aloft and look for the Youth Exchange Project to continue to grow and ask yourself ‘How can I help?’!

We need time now to make our dreams come true. Dream Big


To Our Friends and Supporters…

While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face… of not protesting against an emerging communal evil.”

~Rabbi Judah Loew

We at the Youth Exchange Project mourn the death of George Floyd at the hands of those very men sworn to protect him; to protect us all. We acknowledge that his murder is the latest manifestation in a long-standing pattern of systemic racism and oppression.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all the black, brown, and LGBTQ people of the world. We do not accept a society that continues to denigrate and eradicate people because of their differences. The Youth Exchange Project empowers students to identify and speak their own stories while hearing, seeing and performing the stories of others. We see your story, George Floyd, and vow that it, and the story of people like you will continue to be told. #BlackLivesMatter


I have taken a break. I went into nature, hiked, sat in a freezing cold waterfall and swam in a lake. I spent time with my family. I breathed mountain air. It is time to reflect. We made the agonizing decision to go ahead with the Intensive this spring. We decided to go virtually because I was confident that we had facilitators who could create a virtual space that was safe, challenging, encouraging, exciting, educational and fun for everybody. Ok, I admit, I had my doubts about the technology but I have faith in the youngers to help us navigate. I, too, was experiencing zoom fatigue, but I hoped that after a break we could all start anew.

We did. I look back at what being online forced us to do. We couldn’t rely on proximity, fun running-around games and physical touch to build teamwork and collaboration skills. As a Physical Theatre professional, this made me sad. We missed out on the cool balancing, the finding-yourself-in-space, your cultural identity within space, etc.

We also had challenges building theatre together. We were not in the same room. We had no audience reacting, feeding energy back and forth. It is a very different thing to record homework assignments than to rehearse and put together a piece of theatre. So, we adapt….

And grow! I was amazed on a daily basis how deep these teens wanted to go in discussion, in questioning the guest artists, in writing and performing about themselves. I was amazed at the quality of reflection, of what they were learning and sharing on a daily basis. I was amazed at their technical and creative skills when crafting a performance piece. I had an idea and they came back the next day with the piece done, edited, crafted, cut, and polished – and it blew my little idea out of the water! This happened multiple times. We were given gems of knowledge on a daily basis. The participants had taken a rock that we had given them (or just pointed to- over there under that mountain) and they came back with a fully cut, sparkling, multifaceted gem!

There are too many examples to cite here, but take a gander at the videos and quotes we will soon be posting. I hope you are as inspired as I am. I have faith that connection, education, creativity and collaboration can happen virtually. And for now, that is what we have. As for the future, we are still hoping for full, in-person Intensives, but we will continue to integrate with technology! And, perhaps, we will do another all-virtual intensive with folks from around the globe! Who knows….

I am sitting in gratitude.

~ Shawnna Pledger

Faculty Spotlight: Mason Parker

New to the Summer Intensive faculty this year is Mason Parker. Mason and Youth Exchange Project founder Shawnna Pledger first met when they performed together at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. They spent several months touring together in a van performing a show about substance abuse. While Mason is an experienced actor, that is not his role at Y.E.P. Rather, he will be guiding the students’ journey with the spoken word.

Mason is a lyricist, spoken word artist, and writer. While his start is deeply rooted in southern hip-hop, Parker studied the performances of Michael Jackson and the wordplay of Tupac and Langston Hughes to fuse the art of performance and lyricism. His admiration of performing began at a young age after participating in a monologue competition and sneaking into the spoken word scenes around Charlotte. 

In 2013, he was named Charlotte’s Best Rapper by Creative Loafing Magazine and Male Hip-Hop Artist of the Year in 2016 during the Queen City Awards. Parker has worked as a radio personality at Power 98 FM, Charlotte’s number one urban contemporary radio station as well as performing on stages across the world. As a writer, he published a comic book, The Paperback Hero Saga, which is accompanied by a short film and musical score. As an artist, Parker values the content he establishes in his music and puts a lot of weight on words that will resonate with his listeners. 

His work is a narrative, addressing overcoming homelessness, child abuse, mental health, spirituality, parental loss, and fatherhood. Harnessing the power of his journey, Parker offers stories of hope and spiritual awakening for social loners and juveniles. His unique delivery is soulfully honest, rich with pain, victory, self-realization, and truth. To follow his creative journey in real-time, visit Mason on Twitter and Instagram, and his website, www.iammasonparker.com.

Faculty Spotlight: Dori Robinson

The Youth Exchange Project is excited to introduce Boston-based theatre maker and activist Dori A. Robinson. Dori is joining Y.E.P. as a new faculty member for this year’s Summer Intensive.

Dori A. Robinson

Dori has considerable experience as a director and experiential educator working with such organizations as: The New Victory Theatre, Theatre Development Fund, Park Avenue Armory, Trusty Sidekick, Shattered Globe, Timeline Theatre, New York Student Shakespeare Festival, and most recently Greater Boston Stage Company where she was the Director of Education. She is also a playwright, and has had her original work produced in Boston, New York and Chicago. It is in this role that she joins the Y.E.P. faculty. Dori will be guiding the students in putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, in order to translate their thoughts and conversations into dialogue. She employs a “teaching style [that] allows students to connect with dramatic works and ideas through their minds, hearts, hands, and bodies.”

Dori and Y.E.P. Founder Shawnna Pledger met when both were pursuing their Masters Degrees at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. They were in the Educational Theatre program and shared a passion for Applied Theatre. They are kindred spirits, and Shawnna is very excited to welcome Dori to be part of this summer’s Youth Exchange Project.

To read more about Dori, click here to visit her website.

Y.E.P. is Fashion Forward

We are pleased to announce the launching of the Youth Exchange Project store. You now have a way to support Y.E.P. while stepping out in style. The store features swag adorned with our classic logo, as well as some re-envisioned versions. Shop for t-shirts, tote bags, hoodies/sweatshirts, stickers, and even face masks!

For the third year in a row, the Youth Exchange Project is proud to have been awarded a Cultural Vision Grant from the Arts & Science Council. That grant requires a 1:1 match, however, which means that for every dollar we’ve been awarded by the ASC, we have to raise that dollar in independent funds. You can support this effort by making a financial donation to Y.E.P., or by shopping at our store. All profit is poured right back into the Youth Exchange Project, and enables us to keep the program going, pay our artists and teachers, and offer free or reduced tuition to our participants.

Scroll through below to see a sampling of available Y.E.P. merchandise.

SUMMER 2020 thoughts

We, here at Y.E.P., have been waiting to see what the spring brings to make an announcement about this summer’s program. As we, like everyone, debated what could happen, what might happen and how soon we will be able to move towards leaving our homes we began talking about alternative venues for this summer. Of course we (most of us are teachers during the year) brought up online options. At first I railed against it. The Youth Exchange Project is about making connections. How can we make connections without our model of long, intensive, days that are often highly physical? 

Impossible. That is NOT the vision. This is NOT our strong suit and experience. How can we connect without (breathing the same air/sharing the same oxygen) physical connection?

But then…as we, our students and colleagues get more and more comfortable in the zoom classroom a zooming intensive doesn’t seem impossible. In fact, a zoom intensive would allow other opportunities that our vision has always included. We envisioned a program which includes the Youth Exchange Project to work nationally and internationally. Perhaps this is the way we can start to cultivate those experiences. What if…. Y.E.P.International  is a thing?

So, in that vein, we are actively pursuing and weighing the options, obstacles, benefits and possibilities. Please keep checking back here to see how we are adapting (growing?) in the face of this global epidemic. We and our youths need this connection now more than ever. Lets see what we can do!

If you are reading this and think, Ah, I know an organization in my town (or across the world) that may be interested in combining efforts to give our teens the collaborative-creative-experience-of-a-lifetime please let us know.

You can contact Shawnna at: yeproject17@gmail.com!

Stay safe. Be well.

Shawnna Pledger and all of us here at The Youth Exchange Project (International?)!

It’s 2020

We are continuing on this journey that is the Youth Exchange Project. We are starting workshops around town, writing grants, securing space and getting our ducks in a row. Unfortunately, Johnson C. Smith has lost their arts space and, in turn, so have we. Fortunately we are in negotiations to secure a fantastic space and partnership for this years’ amazing intensive. ~ ONWARD