Students perform Cavetown Underground.

Giving Students a Voice

RiverStars Performing Arts


Four students face away from the audience, their bodies swaying in practiced unison. “We are life-givers,” a voice intones, “meant for sacred work.” The students lift their palms to the sky to the beat of a drum, and the audience holds their collective breath, eyes glued to the students on stage and the power within them.

Performing artists in Cavetown.

The words are from poet and activist Gina Loring, and this is SuperReal, a 2017 dance and theatrical performance by the young creative revolutionaries of RiverStars Performing Arts. The audience has been on a ride as the show unfolded over the past hour. The students’ original comedy and over-the-top costumes hooked them from the start. They dissolved into shared awwws as the tiny, adorable EverStars (the youngest dancers) performed; and they laughed knowingly at inside jokes and needling that only locals could truly appreciate. Now, they have arrived at the dramatic heart of the performance—transported by the grace and power of the young dancers, feeling the drumbeat within. Throughout the show, students showed their comedic and dramatic chops in equal measure. They’ve learned that satire and laughter can be healing, that they can help us see difficult truths for what they are above all else: true.

Fiery young performers.

All of this is happening in Cave Junction, Oregon. Since 2015, each school year ends with a performance like this one. Each play is different, but it is always an original production inspired by Our Town, written by students about their perspectives on their hometown, its issues, and their vision of life in the Illinois Valley. Cavetown productions never shy away from the real issues that students and community members are grappling with, and they always center students’ talents, voices and perspectives as they weave together comedy and drama, dance and theater. Students choose topics and themes and write much of the content, helping their community address important and sometimes contentious local issues.

Students wrote Cavetown about the community in which they live. This was a big draw for audiences, as they were curious about what the children would say about our community. Many truths, sometimes raw and harsh, were exposed. I hope that seeing our community from a child’s eyes helps us adults create the kind of community that we want them to see. Little by little, we are normalizing the arts in our community.
—Project team

We are opening space for deeper conversations in schools, homes and the community. By cultivating a light-hearted sense of fun and remaining grounded in community realities, RiverStars opens new spaces for conversation. This in turn can transform broader community conversations. Within RiverStars, students are exploring gender, attitudes toward food, substance abuse, violence, self-harm and Illinois Valley’s economic realities. Communitywide performances push these difficult but necessary conversations outward.
—Project team

Students make their voices heard.

The work we do in RiverStars gives the children of the Illinois Valley a voice. Often, we as adults assume what it’s like to be a kid here in the Valley, or we are prescriptive to what we think kids here need. I hit a sharp learning curve when I started interacting with these kids. I realized that I just needed to listen, and they would tell me what they needed.
—Lindsey B. Jones, RiverStars Arts Educator and Team Lead

You get to have these discussions now that would normally be siloed at home within the limited family context. Here you get to watch them—dozens of kids on stage—raising the questions and local issues. It just really opens things up and makes it that much easier for our community to talk.
—Kenny Houck, Executive Director, IVCDO 


The community of Cave Junction

Cave Junction

The Illinois Valley is a lush, verdant forested region of Southern Oregon, just 17 miles from the California state line. Nestled between two mountain ranges, it’s known as the gateway to Oregon Caves National Monument, which has drawn tourists to the area for more than a century.

The town of Cave Junction was established in 1948 and named for its location at the junction of Redwood Highway (199) and Caves Highway (46).1 With just under 2,000 residents, Cave Junction is the only incorporated city in the Illinois Valley and one of two in Josephine County. Sixty-eighty percent of the county is public land.Most is protected old-growth forest and open spaces, offering abundant natural beauty and opportunities for recreation, while also leaving the county with a small tax base.

Life here, as in much of rural Oregon, has long been tied to timber. At one time, Illinois Valley had as many as 35 lumber mills.3 For decades, the federal government shared revenue from timber logged on federal land with timber counties, which funded local services and kept taxes low.4 When Oregon’s timber industry declined in the 1980s, mills closed across the region, including in Illinois Valley. In the 1990s, environmental concerns halted logging in federal forests. Tax revenues dried up, and counties like Josephine struggled to fund public services.

In 2000, Congress created a safety net for timber counties: the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which disbursed payments based on past harvests. The subsidy was intended to be transitional as rural counties developed new income streams. But no permanent economic solution emerged, and payments—though reduced—have been extended several times.5

Dwindling subsidies and the rising cost of Oregon’s retirement system for public employees have further eroded county budgets. In the face of these shortfalls, Josephine County has cut back on infrastructure, including libraries, public safety, roads, schools and other essential public services.6 Public safety is an especially pressing concern, identified as the community’s top priority in its 2016-2020 strategic plan.7 Josephine County also struggles with unemployment, poverty and the second-highest rate of food insecurity among Oregon counties.8

But the people of this region are resourceful and resilient, coming together to address these issues in creative ways. In May 2007, Josephine County libraries closed due to lack of funding. Four months later, community members formed a nonprofit to restore the libraries; by the end of 2009, volunteers had reopened all four libraries. For the next eight years, the libraries were supported by private donations—including thousands of local contributions— and hundreds of volunteers. The community then organized three campaigns for permanent funding through the formation of a library district. In 2017, the measure passed, shoring up stable funding for the library system.9

The Illinois Valley is rural and physically isolated, impacted by generational poverty and structural challenges. But its people are community-minded and creative. While there are struggles, there is also joy, a deep sense of pride and a strong sense of place.

We’re proud of the enthusiasm and passion our students hold for their arts community and for the work they create together. Our programming is a stabilizing force for youth riddled with the complex problems of living in situational and generational poverty. RiverStars has catalyzed healing, hope and joy.
—Project team

Growing partnerships in the Valley

This project had a different structure from others in Studio to School, with multiple nonprofits involved. Arts partner Dancefarm, founded by creative visionary Gina Angelique in 2013, is an organization operating at the intersection of dance, theatre and agriculture, with social justice at its core. Dancefarm formed RiverStars Performing Arts to “cultivate youth voice and power using dance and theatre to galvanize community in a small, generationally impoverished and isolated rural community.”

This project was unusual among Studio to School projects because it included an arts organization and two nonprofit partners: Illinois Valley Community Development Organization (IVCDO) and Illinois River Valley Arts Council (IRVAC). The project emerged at a nexus of the organizations’ missions, and all recognized that the project could bolster and enhance their work, furthering their vision for what life in the Illinois Valley could be.

Performing Quaketown.

The school partners were Evergreen Elementary School and Lorna Byrne Middle School in Cave Junction, where more than 95% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.10 The project built on established sequential arts instruction in music and visual arts, offered twice a week after school at Evergreen and Lorna Byrne starting in 2006. Schools worked with IRVAC to provide 12 hours of arts integration each month through a program called Learning Through the Arts, funded through 21st Century Community Learning grants. Notably, it was the schools’ choice to use the funds for arts opportunities. The program and partnership were successful; school administrators reported that student attendance was consistently highest on days with arts programming.

This Studio to School project was an opportunity for all partners to stretch and grow their work together, bringing students a new level of opportunities for artistic expression and performance.

Expanding performing arts programming

The original project plan was to bring weekly dance and theater programming to all elementary students (after school) and all middle school students (during and after school). From the beginning, the partners recognized that in order for programming to be accessible, it needed to be free, with food and transportation provided, and performances offered as free or pay what you can. Dance and theater have long been the most underrepresented arts in Oregon schools.11 This programming was unlike anything in the region, bringing high-quality dance and theater classes into schools, stressing technical skills and artistry, and culminating in public performances.

Lighting up the stage.

The school partners provided support, facilities, transportation and structure. IRVAC and IVCDO provided administrative support, partnership and visioning. IRVAC offered connections to local arts efforts and activists, while IVCDO nurtured the program’s sustainability component. As the creative partner, Dancefarm brought a deep knowledge of how to deliver and enhance performing arts programming in schools, contributing not just its creative vision but also its extensive practical knowledge about anticipating and budgeting for sustainability needs. Dancefarm was also the driver in identifying, training and nurturing arts instructors.

A vision for articulture takes root

From the start, the team had a clear vision for arts learning and students’ creative expression, and saw the project as an opportunity to build community. IRVAC, IVCDO and Dancefarm wanted the project to be a catalyst for a thriving regional arts community, envisioning that this effort would dovetail with the local agricultural economy. In the words of the team, this was a chance “to sow new art seeds in the Illinois Valley and cultivate a local arts economy.”

Reimagining Orpheus and Eurydice.

Their proposal drew on histories of the connection between arts and agriculture—especially in rural areas—and explored how economic diversity could help return the region to economic prosperity without overreliance on one industry. Their vision was that connecting school programming, student learning and arts performances to the larger community would create a ripple effect moving outward from the school to inspire community vibrancy and evolution.

Arts integration work and performing arts programming began at Lorna Byrne Middle School right away, and the team established the ArtNovas troupe for middle schoolers. To meet local needs, this programming was open to all middle school students in the region, whether they attended public, private or home school. About a dozen middle school students attended the program in fall 2014, culminating in a December performance of A Christmas Carol. This was the first theatrical performance in the community since a middle school production in 2010. In a town of 2,000, more than 300 community members attended the play, and donated more than $1,000 to sustain the program.

During the first school year, the EverStars Performance Troupe was established at Evergreen Elementary, with a consistent group of 17 student artists. At both schools, administrators were positive and supportive, and students were excited to have more creative school programming. As RiverStars Lead Educator Gina Angelique reflected:

I felt a lot of positive energy throughout the [middle] school in general... with many kids running up to tell me about their plays in class or their practicing for ArtNovas. It was exactly the kind of buzz I like to see and feel when we are working in a school.
—Attribution needed

Fun with the EverStars.

Students were learning theater and dance vocabulary, exhibiting teamwork and developing skills in and through the arts. Many of the middle school students in ArtNovas were struggling academically, and the team saw their promise and potential:

It is a good thing to have so many struggling kids in ArtNovas. We want to catch the kids who are failing to connect into schools through other means. That just means we have good work ahead.
—Project team

To reach students, the team knew they needed to put trusting relationships at the core of their work. School administrators recognized that the program was reaching students who were at times isolated or disconnected from the school. They appreciated that these students had found a home in creative spaces where they connected with caring adults and peers.

RiverStars often reaches students who are not otherwise reached through school or sports and helps them to build confidence and connect to caring and trusted adults. They are able to see themselves in a new way.
—Project team

Students know that if they need to approach us about something, we're willing to sit down with them for as long as it takes and work it out. It feels good to have that trust built into the relationships we have with the program. At this point, we've had some of the kids in our program for four or five years. It feels great. That's a long relationship to have with a kid.
—Lindsey B. Jones, RiverStars Arts Educator and Team Lead

Challenges and changes along the way

A young performer as Orpheus.

As expected for a dynamic and forward-thinking project, the team experienced some challenges and changes. These included a realignment within the original organizational partnerships, although many of the same individuals and champions remained deeply involved throughout the project. By the start of the second year, it was clear that IVCDO would be a natural fit to manage administration and other support for the project, so IRVAC exited from the original arrangement. The new configuration worked well. The project team was able to draw on IVCDO’s connections, fundraising, organizational and community knowledge, as well as its capacity to manage grants of this size and complexity.

Other shifts occurred as the team learned more about what worked well within the program. Partners found that weekly pedagogy time was invaluable for shaping programming and staying responsive to students and the community. Arts educators valued having dedicated time—both separately and with classroom teachers—for reflection and processing, professional growth, peer learning, building their knowledge, and engaging in creative thinking. It also helped to establish common ground between arts educators and classroom teachers, bridging the gap between their philosophies and approaches. Having seen these benefits, the team built in time for their second year to continue this practice.

The team and arts educators also learned more about what it means to work in a community experiencing endemic poverty and geographic isolation. In the first year, they came to fully appreciate the power of performances:

Enrichment activities have galvanized communitywide support. Children are so proud of what they accomplish with their performances, and they are doing something they have never done before. In sports, the winner or loser is declared the day of the activity. But in theatre, we work and practice for a final performance where a different kind of closure ensues. Here in Cave Junction, that closure has been an opening to community excitement and enthusiasm. So much joy has come from these performances, and we cherish this process because of the impact it has on students and the community.
Gina Angelique, RiverStars Lead Educator

Growing programming and building community

Performing Quaketown.

In the second year, the number of students participating in sequential programming doubled, and the program began to see more buy-in from parents—more permission slips turned in, more parent volunteers. Each year, more students wanted to participate. And it wasn’t just a passing fad; students were consistent and dedicated. The audiences for performances grew, and some shows were standing room only. Students were invited to perform at community fundraisers and events, and local media began to run stories and photos of the program. The project team felt that the program was valued throughout the community:

In the third year, RiverStars has become really important; if we stopped what we’re doing, people would notice and ask where it went. We have a lot of community buy-in and support for the program now.
—Project team member

Cavetown and other student performances also evolved, incorporating audience participation and talkbacks with the audience after the show. After a few years of community-building and creative growth, students begansoliciting community input to help shape the shows’ content. The impacts of this program on students and the community were numerous and profound. The team reflected on the impact of their third Cavetown performance in 2017:

During our first production of Cavetown [in 2014], there was a big message about the concern over community safety. The same theme repeated the following year and again this spring. Kids are talking about who holds the power and not feeling safe in our community. We don’t have police, and public safety has been a large, ongoing issue in the county. Past levies for our area for public safety have been voted down; there was another levy proposed in the election this spring. If it didn’t pass, there would be no police presence whatsoever. This May, the levy passed. Whether our kids had anything to do with that or not, we can’t say for sure. But when we told students the levy passed, they cheered! They were really excited. They felt like they were part of it.
—Lindsey B. Jones, RiverStars Arts Educator and Team Lead

By the 2017-2018 school year, 55 K-12 students were consistently participating in performing arts programming. The team was especially proud of the diversity of RiverStars students. Cave Junction is a predominantly white community, but RiverStars included Native American and Black students. The team worked to ensure that the program was a safe and affirming space for all, including students exploring their gender identities.

Many of the kids have gone through a period of changing their pronouns... we are like, "Whatever it is today, we're going to do our best to be here for you."... Youth is a time for exploration.... We accept everybody at RiverStars. It's a safe place.
—Gina Angelique, RiverStars Lead Educator

The performers of Hadestown.

The project’s impacts continued to reverberate and spark creative new ideas. During the project, partner IVCDO spearheaded creation of the Illinois Valley Community Vision & Strategic Plan 2016-2020. The strategic plan process involved student input and connected to many themes that students had surfaced and explored in Cavetown:

This area has been working on a 2020 community strategic plan. When asked their opinions as part of this process, kids said they don’t feel safe in their parks or their community. I think the conversation around public safety has shifted now that kids are having a voice in this conversation.
Lindsey B. Jones, RiverStars Arts Educator and Team Lead

The Valley’s strategic plan describes a thriving arts community in its visionary goal statement, with “creative expression” as a strategy to create and strengthen community engagement and connections. To be sure, much work lies ahead for Cave Junction and the Illinois Valley, along with no shortage of challenges. But as young creatives grounded in this place find their voices within the community, there are positive changes to come.

  1. Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce. (n.d.). The history of the Illinois Valley & Cave Junction, Oregon. http://www.ivchamberofcommerce.com/About-Cave-Junction-The-Illinois-Valley
  2. The Ford Family Foundation & Oregon State University Extension Service. (2018, May 30). Oregon by the numbers: Key measures for Oregon and its counties: 2018 edition. https://digital.osl.state.or.us/islandora/object/osl%3A956543/datastream/OBJ/view
  3. Van der Voo, L. (2014, May 29). Timber town. Oregon Business. https://www.oregonbusiness.com/events/item/14880-timber-town

  4. Miner, T. R. (2013, November 8). The state that timber built. Oregon Humanities. https://oregonhumanities.org/rll/magazine/here-spring-2012/the-state-that-timber-built/

  5. Ibid.
  6. Walsh, M. W. (2018, April 14). A $76,000 monthly pension: Why states and cities are short on cash. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/14/business/pension-finance-oregon.html
  7. Illinois Valley Community Development Organization & Rural Development Initiatives, Inc. (2016). Illinois Valley 20/20 community vision & strategic plan 2016-2020. https://ivcdo.org/wp-content/uploads/illinois-valley-20-20-strategic-plan-8-3-2016.pdf
  8. The Ford Family Foundation & Oregon State University Extension Service. (2018, May 30). Oregon by the numbers: Key measures for Oregon and its counties: 2018 edition. https://digital.osl.state.or.us/islandora/object/osl%3A956543/datastream/OBJ/view
  9. Josephine Community Library. (n.d.). Our story. https://josephinelibrary.org/about-the-library/our-story/
  10. Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Oregon at-a-glance school profile 2018-2019: Evergreen Elementary School; Lorna Byrne Middle School. Accessed July 24, 2021, from https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx
  11. Leonard, K., Flanagan, Z., & Cordle Kennedy, E. (2019). A snapshot of K-12 arts education in Oregon. Oregon Community Foundation. https://oregoncf.org/assets/PDFs-and-Docs/PDFs/oregon_arts_education_snapshot2019.pdf