by Tom Wall, Walgreens Stories
16 March 2021
After more than a decade of helping students in Chicago and St. Louis express themselves through art, the Walgreens Expressions Challenge is going national.
Being a teenager isn’t easy.
 
Teens today grapple with a wide range of issues, such as bullying, self-image and safe sex. But now, in an age of remote learning, social isolation and health crisis, it can be harder than ever for young people to manage all of these stressors, which existed before COVID-19 and will persist well past the pandemic.
 
For more than 10 years, Walgreens has been encouraging teens – and helping their teachers’ efforts – to better express themselves through the creative arts with the Expressions Challenge, created by our Community Affairs team. The competition is divided into three categories: visual art, video production and creative writing. Twelve winners in each category receive a $2,000 award. This year also includes a special category for submissions that explore the impact of COVID-19 (and an additional $1,000 for that winner).
 
Although Expressions was previously offered only to students and teachers in Chicago and St. Louis, this year’s challenge is open to students all across the country. Submissions are being accepted now until the end of March, and winners will be announced in May.
 
As we look ahead to submissions from students across the country, here’s a look at some of the lives that have been touched by Expressions over the past few years – and the wonderful work they’ve created:
 
Automatic
 
Safe sex is a topic that’s always been important to Garrett Miller, but even though it’s extremely important, he felt it could sometimes be awkward to talk about. So for his submission to the Expressions Challenge in 2015, he talked about safe sex through a medium that was comfortable to him, in hopes it would be impactful to others.
 
“I chose to create a video that brought awareness to the importance of safe sex,” Miller says. “I’ve always loved directing and editing video, and so it just made sense for me to explore this as a video, where I directed, edited, wrote and even acted in it.”
 
Unable to be in two places at once, Miller enlisted his sister’s help behind the camera to shoot the video – a PSA-style piece called Automatic:

 
 

The piece was chosen as a winner in the video production category, and the win encouraged him to pursue a career in multimedia production – a junior at Howard University, he’s currently majoring in media, film and television and aspires to be a creative director for television or digital advertising one day.
 
A man of many talents, Miller also won first place in the creative writing category in 2017 for his narrative piece, Alone, which deals with inclusion and showing kindness to those who might feel isolated.
 
“I feel like the Expressions Challenge is going to spark so many young people across the nation, because that's exactly what it did for me,” says Miller. “It definitely inspired me to follow my passions, and I hope it can do the same for others.”
 
 
Behind my back
 
When Amy Paniagua was in high school, like most girls her age, there were a lot of demands on her time: doing homework, hanging out with friends and using whatever spare time she had to pursue personal passions, such as visual art.
 
But unlike most girls her age, she had something else that demanded a great deal of her time: her son.
 
“I was pregnant before my junior year and I had my son right at the beginning of the school year,” she says. “I definitely noticed how people outside of school would look at me differently, because I was so young looking, but had a big belly. I felt that judgement.”
 
When she returned to school, six weeks after giving birth, one of the first teachers she sought out was her AP art teacher, who had given Paniagua a shoulder to lean on throughout her pregnancy. Her teacher mentioned the Expressions Challenge as a way to help channel some of the thoughts and emotions she experienced during her pregnancy. Paniagua was all-in.
 
Using her preferred medium, charcoal on paper, she got to work creating a piece of visual art that would eventually win first place in the visual arts category in 2019: Behind my back.
 
 
“In the piece, I’m holding my son and he’s seven months old,” she explains. “Behind me, two girls are whispering about me, saying nasty things … but I’m not paying attention to them, I’m just looking at my son.”
 
Creating Behind my back helped Paniagua get in touch with her feelings – a benefit she sees as even more valuable than the cash reward she received for winning first place. She’s currently pursuing a nursing career, with plans to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago, but she still finds time to create art whenever she can – drawing portraits and other pieces on commission.
 
 “I can't wait to see what everybody else in the country has to offer about the talent, the struggles … all of it,” she says. “That's what the Walgreens Expressions Challenge is about – expressing yourself. I’m glad so many more student will be able to do just that.”
 
What kind of person do I have in front of me?
 
While the Expressions Challenge is meant to directly benefit student entrants, it’s also designed to help art teachers at participating schools to motivate their students, perhaps even unlocking hidden artistic potential within their class rosters. Denise Barba is an art teacher at Amundsen High School in Chicago. The Expressions Challenge has been a part of her curriculum since 2009.
 
“The Expressions Challenge is one of my go-to things at the beginning of the school year,” Barba says. “When I’m working with students, I always want to know what kind of person I have in front of me. This is the project that gives me the chance to get them to open up about their values, their backgrounds and their experiences, and lets me get a glimpse into what kind of art they would create on their own – what’s in their hearts.”
 

By allowing students to explore topics such as mental and emotional health, bullying, gun violence and more on a deeper level through their arwork, Barba says that Expressions has a great deal of value to her as an educator.
 
“Expressions isn’t just about traumatic things, either. It allows for great conversations,” she says. “As I’m trying to get to know my students, they’re trying to learn who I am, too. They’re able to show me their vulnerable side through art, and I don’t think that’s something they’d be able to share otherwise.”
 
For more information and details about how to enter the Expressions Challenge, please visit the website at ExpressionsChallenge.com. The Expressions Challenge is not open to Walgreens employees or teens of Walgreens employees.