Over the past several years, Denver has seen an uptick in gang-related violence—and the city’s kids have noticed. To wit: When local nonprofit Arts Street@Youth Employment Academy surveyed the young people in its job training program, the majority pinpointed gang violence as the most serious problem facing their demographic. Arts Street decided to do something about that by partnering with organizations such as the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver to identify youth between 14 and 21 at risk of joining gangs. Then staffers created a comprehensive program called We Still Live, which asked these teens and young adults to explore their identities through culture and art—instead of violence. Participants underwent DNA tests (to learn more about their ancestries), painted self-portraits, and designed and executed community projects with creative elements.

They’ll display their works from January 5 to 12 during an exhibit at RedLine, but here you can get insights from the artists themselves.

When I got my [ancestry.com] results, my parents were excited; they were like, ‘Which part of that came from each of us?’ Now they want to get their own DNA tests.” —Zharia, 16

My favorite part was seeing that people could live off their arts. I wanted to go to ArtCenter [College of Design] in California, but I didn’t think I could get in because I didn’t have any skills in art. I would watch videos, but I never really did it. Now I’m visiting ArtCenter in the spring to do a tour.” —Adama, 16

Adama, age 16. Photo courtesy of Arts Street.

These days, I see a lot of young people just like me, having a hard time finding their own selves. I’m trying to use my art to let people with that pain inside know that they don’t need to turn to drugs. Even with all the wars and negativity and social media, there’s a positive way out.” —Mai, 18

Mai, age 18. Photo courtesy of Thomas Evans.

I walked into this with not the best attitude. I walked out learning more about myself than I had in 17 years. I could look in the mirror and tell that I was black, but that was it. Knowing that I’m not only Nigerian but also Irish and Asian makes me feel more connected to everyone around me.” —Kiara, 17

I created a PSA about recycling in my community. I didn’t realize I could accomplish something that could influence people in [such a] short amount of time. This makes me think I can do even more to impact my community with more time.” —Neteru, 17

Albert, age 16. Photo courtesy of Arts Street.

I knew I was Mexican and I thought about my culture, but not really. Now I do. And I understand it could help me in the future because how I say things could offend people and start fights.” —Albert, 16