Education Builds Pathways

Everyday, the realities of life for many at-risk children work against the achievement of their dreams. While there are those who transcend their circumstances, “it should not require heroism to be a child.”

These words were written by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and Alma J. Powell in “Our Cause: A Letter to America” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance. The organization, of which Mrs. Powell is the current chair, has as its mission to “create the conditions for success for all young people.” A central idea to doing that appears on its website:

History is not destiny and education builds pathways.

voices-297-emily

Emily Griffey

I recently spoke with Emily Griffey about early care and education in Virginia. As Policy Director with the organization Voices for Virginia’s Children, she works to try to ensure that the resources, programming and opportunities needed for every child in the state to achieve their best outcome are available and accessible.

The Q&A of our discussion appears in Issue 5 of The Advocate and you can read it here

fb_img_1476472392734

Antoinette White

I also spoke with Antoinette White, author of the self-published memoir “Who’s Protecting Me?” She sees herself as an example of how hard work, character and idealism can allow you to transcend your past.

“My main message is resiliency. Don’t let past pain define who you can become,” White told me. “If that can make a difference in just one person’s life, then that’s why I wrote this book.”

More about my conversation with Antoinette also appears in Issue 5 of The Advocate and you can read it here

 

Advertisements

Giving Girls A Voice To Change The World

When I spoke with Angela Patton a few months ago, I was struck by how direct and open she was. We discussed the CAMP DIVA program she founded in Richmond, Virginia in 2004, its merger with non-profit Girls for a Change and her current role as CEO of that organization. Her passion for her work was clear, from her constant reference to program participants as “my girls” to the story she told of networking and making contacts while on a family vacation because you have leap at the opportunities that present themselves.

Not only has Patton leapt at the opportunities that have come her way, but she has tried to facilitate opportunities for her girls to advance themselves, improve their communities and feel empowered to make their voices heard.

The article that I wrote about Patton, CAMP DIVA and Girls for a Change appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Advocate, the newsletter for Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of the Urban Child. You can read it here.

Angela Patton
Girls for a Change CEO and CAMP DIVA founder Angela Patton

 

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Last week I spoke with mother and son authors Betty K. Bynum and Joshua B. Drummond about their recently released title, I’m a Brilliant Little Black Boy! Bynum is also the author of two titles for girls, I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl! and I’m a Lovely Little Latina! 

The story that I wrote appears in the latest issue of the Urban Views Weekly. (more…)

Interesting People – Important Work

I have had a lot to be thankful for over the past few months. Personally, I took a great trip to visit family and friends in Australia, and I will have all my children under one roof for the first time in almost a decade over the Christmas holidays. Professionally,  I was offered an opportunity to do some freelance work by a former NC A&T professor of mine, Bonnie Newman Davis.

In addition to having been a professor at NC A&T and other universities, Bonnie is also a journalist, writer and editor associated with, among many other organizations, the National Association of Black Journalists. She is also the founder and director of the BND Institute of Media and Culture. It was her work as an editor, in this case for The Advocate – the newsletter for the Virginia Union University Center for the Study of the Urban Child. It was an awesome opportunity to get paid to write, but also to talk to some folks who are passionate about issues related to community policing and the Black Lives Matter movement, and you can read the December issue here.

Jeree Thomas, policy director at Campaign for Youth Justice, is one of those passionate and committed people I spoke to. She was enthused about the innovation being shown at local levels in addressing issues related to youth justice and community policing. Jeree used to work with the JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Virginia, so one of the examples she gave of this innovation at work was of an arts program that brings together police and incarcerated youth.

I also spoke with Sgt. Carol Adams of the Richmond City Police. Her love of what she does every day came through as she spoke about her work as an officer in the community. “My priority is caring for the people who have lost a loved one, and the people who are hurting,” she told me. “I automatically step into that role back on the other side of the table, not on the investigative side, but to hug them to hold them, to empathize with them and to educate them on the process that will take place from the policing side to give them more of an understanding.”

A survivor of domestic violence herself, she also began The Carol Adams Foundation to provide support and assistance to victims and families experiencing domestic violence.

Richmond mother-of-four, Amanda Lynch spoke with me about her organizing work in Richmond. She formed Black Lives Matter 804, which she is currently trying to formalize as the official Richmond chapter of the Black Lives Matter organization. Her perception of the work officers like Sgt. Adams are doing in Richmond was a positive one.

“I think the police in Richmond have done a really good job within the community so they are not seen as just ‘someone who’s there to arrest my dad’ but as a part of the community, not independent of it,” Amanda said. One of the initiatives she was pleased to see officers working with was Coaches Against Violence Everywhere. This group’s vision is to use their influence as coaches to mentor youth and develop character through education in healthy relationships, social skills, conflict resolution and community leadership.

Here in Connecticut,  I spoke with Bishop John Selders. I had spoken with him for an article I wrote when I was still in classes, but it was good to catch up on some of the more recent work being done by Moral Monday CT. On the day I spoke to him in October, Bishop Selders had been recently arrested during a protest in Hartford; however, we also spoke about some of the broader actions the group had been involved with including a trip as part of a Black Lives Matter delegation to Brazil in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic Games.

“It was a trip of a lifetime and an amazing opportunity,” he told me, “but it was an awful experience at the same time. Brazil has a terrible track record around state-sanctioned violence to black people.”

Bishop Selders talked about the folks they met, including some with Mothers of May, an organization of largely mothers who have lost sons and daughters to state-sanctioned violence. It has birthed a movement of parents who are out on the front lines being arrested, marching, doing policy work – channeling their suffering and pain into community action and to bettering their society.

He also spoke about a program he was presenting – Revolutionary Conversations – designed to engage the audience in an exploration of the theological sources behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We have stepped into a global and a national context with our work even while we continue to struggle with the day-to-day happenings here in Connecticut,” Bishop Selders said.

Last, but certainly not least, I spoke with former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel. Kevin discussed the Police School Diversion Program he instituted after he was inspired by a challenge from Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Georgia. He wanted to know what Kevin could do in Philadelphia to help the roughly 1,600 students that were being arrested each year for mostly summary and misdemeanor offenses. His actions to create a pre-arrest diversion program help keep kids out of the criminal justice system and move them into service programs that can help them and their families.

I’m looking forward to more opportunities to speak to interesting people and share what I have learned. You can read what I wrote about this time by clicking here.

Bridging the Gap Together

I spent some time over the past few months talking with Quinnipiac University’s professor of drama Crystal Brian, and sitting in on her Theater for Community class. Brian partnered this term with Mary Lou Lauricella, a drama therapist at the West Haven VA. For the past 20 years, Lauricella has worked through VA Connecticut to facilitate a PTSD drama therapy group called the Veterans’ Homefront Theater Group. Over the semester, they guided the students in the class and veteran volunteers got to know one another and created an improvisational performance piece which they presented together on Wednesday night. (more…)

Turning Up In Connecticut

Although I grew up in Connecticut, I am a pretty recently returned resident of Connecticut. Before mid-2014 I had been living in North Carolina for half a dozen years. When I started going back to school one of the first stories I reported on for class was the Forward Together/Moral Monday Movement and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. You can take a look at those stories here and here, and view a slideshow as well.

In my final semester, I became aware of Moral Monday CT. It seemed fitting for one of the last stories I would report on for class to come back to the Moral Monday movement through Rev. Dr. John Selders Jr. Here’s the story that I wrote for JRN 470 …

(more…)

Confronting Issues That Matter

It’s easy to imagine theater students worrying about costumes and learning lines, rushing to rehearsals, or performing on stage. Students at Quinnipiac University do this all the time. But, as part of their theater program over the past 15 years, they’ve also collaborated with combat veterans, worked with children living in extreme poverty in Nicaragua, explored “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland first-hand, developed plays with at-risk youth in New Haven, and spoken with inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.

“Everybody should have to visit a VA hospital; everybody should have to go into a lethal injection chamber,”  Dr. Crystal Brian, Quinnipiac’s professor of theater since 2000, explains. “Once you are there, you can’t deny it. You can pretend to, but the innocence is gone and you can’t ever really be the same again.”

000510048

Dr. Crystal Brian

Brian introduced the concepts of theater for social change to her students and makes the case that theater itself is naturally theater for social change. The Greeks used it as a way of discussing the issues that faced them as a society, and today, when you consciously do theater with the idea that you’re changing yourself or changing the world, you are using theater as a way to understand social issues and engage in your communities.

Brian knows that her early students were an amazing group. They really latched onto this vision of what theater could be and how it connects to all aspects of life.

Allison Clark was one of those students from 2001-2005. She recalled what being involved with the theater meant to her, especially following the events of 9/11:

Not only did theater become a way for us to connect to our own catharsis, but we were asking our community to think and feel and respond to bigger questions as well.

In Clark’s freshman year, she was involved with “The Laramie Project,” a play about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who had been beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.

The following year students produced “The Antigone Project.” They considered the motives behind war and its impact on those involved by interacting and interviewing combat veterans, many of whom had fought in Vietnam. Listening to their experiences and hearing about the negative reactions and lack of support that often greeted their return home, was the moment when most of the students involved really personally connected with a marginalized population for the first time.

“It was profound for everyone involved,” Clark said. “I remember writing in a journal back then, “we held each other’s heartstrings.”

Student Kathryn Monigan was a freshman at Quinnipiac in 2003. Although she loved theater, she was not pursuing it as a major when she arrived on campus. After being cast in the production “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in the spring of 2004, things began to change.

“Dr. Crystal Brian and her vision of Theater for Social Change altered my perspective on theater entirely,” Monigan said. “The concept that theater can carry with it a strong social message, and that the message can have the power to help heal a community, or bring about understanding and change, that to me is so impactful.”

The following spring, Monigan and Clark were among a group of students that traveled with Brian to tour “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in peace and reconciliation centers throughout Northern Ireland. Speaking directly with former combatants and victims who experienced that period of conflict between Catholics and Protestants was an experience both feel fortunate to have had.

“Gaining an understanding of ‘The Troubles’ and seeing real life uses for the art of  drama therapy had a profound impact on my understanding of conflict resolution between groups and individuals,” Monigan said.

During her senior year she was involved in the production of “Dead Man Walking.” The students traveled to New Orleans to meet with Sister Helen Prejean, who authored the book that went on to be adapted to stage and screen by Tim Robbins. They also toured Angola State Penitentiary, including the death house, and interviewed inmates there.

“I hope that we were able to translate some of the reality and sensitivity we now had to the audiences and community of Quinnipiac with our performances and talk backs,” Monigan said. “As a cast member, I can tell you these experiences will linger with me for the rest of my life.”

Brian, who had become friends with Robbins when they were both students at UCLA, arranged for the actor and director to participate in a workshop with students at Quinnipac. A photograph of Robbins with her students holds pride of place in Brian’s office, and the words he shared about the work being done through the Theater and Community program are framed with it:

I hope you understand how important the work you are doing is.

You are creating angels.

Brian believes the program does change the students who participate.

“Some of them are immediately drawn to it and they just realize they want to find a way to use this to make the world a better place,” she said. “But even those who take a bit longer to warm to the course have grasped the idea by the end and become different people because of it.”

This was the case in 2009, when students joined with youth from the New Haven Family Alliance’s Juvenile Review Board to create the play “Whitewashed: In the (Neighbor) ‘Hood.” At first, it seemed like students on both sides were struggling to enjoy the experience.

“But then they began to learn from each other, talking about their families and getting to know one another,” Brian said. “Then it became something.”

The play was performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.

Theater students began taking annual trips to Nicaragua in 2006, in order to work with youngsters living in extreme poverty. During the year, the university’s students would collaborate with the students in Nicaragua to create a play they would workshop and perform during the spring or summer trip.

In 2013, the students, many of whom had no fathers in their lives, wrote a play to express the love and appreciation they had for their mothers. The Nicaraguan students were excited to travel by bus into the city of León to workshop the play. On the final day, their mothers were brought in to see the performance. The kids even learned to sing a song in English for their mothers.

“To see their moms come in to the city, and for them to see their children say how much they care about them and how glad they are to have them – it was beautiful,” Brian said.

Civil unrest has prevented students from traveling to Nicaragua the past two years, but Brian hopes to resume the trips in 2016.

Another project Brian is working to arrange for the 2016 spring semester involves the Lifers Group Youth Initiative at Cheshire Correctional Institute. Working within the prison is an idea she’s had brewing for some time, and she has made contact to arrange a meeting to discuss the project. If it gets the go-ahead, Brian hopes that students and inmates will be able to write and perform a play together.

Amber Hopwood is a criminal justice/psychology double major at Quinnipiac. She is one of several students eager to take part in the Cheshire project in the spring. The idea of rehabilitation was what really hooked her.

Theater can help people in ways that we may not think of or recognize at first, and as an undergraduate, to be able to do something to that extent, even getting to go into the prison and interact, is a big deal.

Hopwood is interested because it is really a way of doing something different. Theater will give inmates something fun and creative to do, an outlet that they can have input into and where it can become whatever they want it to be rather than a solution that is forced on them.

“I hope to come up with a program that sticks,” Hopwood continued. “Something that can open doors into the prison for other classes and programs that can also be effective. That’s the biggest thing – to help the prisoners.”

This kind of long lasting impact has happened for both Clark and Monigan.

Clark has become a Drama Therapist. Over the past 15 years she has worked with people in acute inpatient psychiatric settings, homeless populations, terminally ill children, women who have been physically and sexually abused, and victims of rape and incest.

“I aid in the coping and emotional support of those who believe their voices are not worth hearing, and I help them to understand their voices still need to be heard,” Clark said.. “It’s everything my work with Crystal [Brian] taught me.”

Monigan also uses the ideals and lessons she learned at Quinnipiac in her daily life. She acquired her teaching certification in Theater Arts and works as a high school teacher and director today. She uses a repertoire of shows that challenge social norms and address the larger issues of culture and society.

“I strive to teach my students that the arts can have a profound impact,” Monigan said. “I am forever thankful to Dr. Brian and the opportunities I was provided while at Quinnipiac University.”

Brian is proud that these opportunities help students to grow and develop by engaging with the local, national and global community. They are invaluable in helping to foster the understanding of the role “citizen artists” can play in our complex and sometimes troubled world.

####

To hear about the creation of Quinnipiac’s Theater and Community program from Crystal Brian and some of the students watch this clip edited from Kelly Shamburg’s student film, “Theater for Community.”