Our Story

MelodyTodd_quoteExpress Yourself was founded on belief in the power of artistic expression to change lives.

In 2001, Lori Vance – LCSW art therapist and visual artist — recognized the need in Milwaukee for a very different kind of arts program. Through her daily work as a therapist, Lori witnessed the difficulty that urban at-risk youth have in connecting with therapeutic arts resources provided in outpatient services.

Through a national conference collaboration Lori connected with Express Yourself, a Boston organization established in 1988, and built on the belief that using art to build ongoing relationships with at-risk youth can have life-changing results. Different than traditional artist-in-residence models which offer time-limited inspiration, Lori saw that the Express Yourself approach could address the need she identified in Milwaukee.

The first pilot for the program was run in 2001, and in 2003, Express Yourself Milwaukee was incorporated as the first affiliate chapter of Express Yourself. Since then, Express Yourself Milwaukee has expanded greatly, affecting the lives of more than 1,100 youth annually across Metropolitan Milwaukee.

From the beginning, nationally-recognized guest artists joined with EXYOMKE to instruct and perform with program youth at our annual year-end celebration. Artists include Jimmy Santiago Baca, cast members from STOMP, Amlak Tafari of Steele Pulse, Lex Allen, Lucky Diop, and many others.

In just over 15 years, we’ve developed a dedicated team of creative professionals who care deeply about our community. We know that art can heal and change lives — we see it happen every day. Our team is committed to being a positive, consistent presence in the lives of the youth we serve.

Awards and Recognition

2016 Express Yourself Milwaukee Day
In honor of Illuminate, our performance at the Historic Milwaukee Theatre, Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed May 12, 2016 Express Yourself Milwaukee Day.

2015 MANDI People’s Choice Award
The first interactive award category where the winner is chosen by the public through an online voting system. EXYOMKE was also one of three finalists for the BMO Harris Bank Cornerstone Award honoring an organization or program with a long-standing commitment to a neighborhood and demonstrated effectiveness over time.

National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award
Recognized in 2013 and 2014 as one of 50 exceptional programs across the country presenting rich arts and humanities learning opportunities to young people.

Pauline Redmond Coggs Foundation of Epislon Kappa Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Recognized in 2014 in the Emerging Young Leaders category for our work with Internships, and in 2012 for Outstanding Performance and lasting contribution to the quality of life in the Greater Milwaukee Community.

Mayor’s Design Award
Presented for our Pop-up Galleries in 2013, recognizing design excellence throughout the city of Milwaukee. Recipients have added value to their neighborhoods by restoring, constructing or enhancing their properties in a way that respects the urban fabric and contributes to the character of their surroundings.

Starfish Award
Presented by Marquette Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative in 2009, the Starfish Award honors Urban Unsung Heroes for their service, compassion and leadership in the community.