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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 …

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

A drive down Dixwell can take you places

It is easy to become absorbed by a project, and that’s what I’ve spent the past month doing in my Public Affairs Reporting class.

For inspiration, Professor Amy Walker, sent us out of the classroom and into the real world – for a drive down Dixwell Avenue. Between Hamden and New Haven the ideas started to flow. There was so much to focus on – and we all found different facets to explore.

I got to meet some dedicated youth workers and some pretty amazing kids while putting my project together. Read my article Changing the Narratives in Newhallville. Then take some time to explore the rest of the site. It has a variety of multi-media presentations from the rest of the class. Check them all out and post your comments.

Let me start with some things I thought I knew …

I’ve been standing on the end of the diving board contemplating entering the blogging pool for a while and I finally decided to jump in. Okay, maybe “decided” is the wrong word because, while they haven’t exactly pushed me in, my professors have certainly been letting me know that as a journalism major, I really belong off the board and in the pool. But before you get the idea that this blog is going to be water-related, I’ll end the analogy and introduce myself.

I am a senior at Quinnipiac University majoring in journalism, but my undergraduate studies also include an associates degree from Randolph Community College and a year at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. I grew up in Connecticut, in the city of Shelton, and I currently live in the town of Granby. In between, I have become a wife and mother, lived almost half my life overseas in Australia, then spent a few more years living a little less South in North Carolina where I decided to return to school as a non-traditional student hoping to play a role in what is often pointed to as a dying medium – print journalism.

What always stopped me from diving in to blogging (sorry – last one, I promise!) is not unique to me – What should I blog about? I really couldn’t decide where to start and so I have to thank one of my teachers at QU this semester, Cat Carter, who suggested history as an approach to current topics that interest me. After a little thought I decided to focus my first few posts on some basic history I thought I knew before I went back to school.

And what could be more basic than the discovery of the Americas, right? You’ve probably recited the poem, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Of course, you may already know that the Vikings came here long before Columbus – probably half a millennium. But apparently there is evidence of African explorers making their way to the Americas centuries before Columbus as well. Why did I not know that? The book  “They Came Before Columbus”  was originally published in 1976 and its author, anthropologist Dr. Ivan van Sertima, asserted that Africans had traveled to pre-Columbian America and exerted some influence on the culture and history. While his theories are not accepted fact, my point is that I was completely unaware of the speculation which has been in print for almost 40 years.

This wasn’t the only new thing I discovered sitting in Anwar Alston’s grammar class at NC A&T. Remember the Alamo? Maybe you misremember it if, like me, you never learned that the continuation of slavery was one of the reasons it was fought. James W. Russell, a professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University, published the book “Escape from Texas” in 2012. Though this is a fictional novel, it provides an account that argues “the extension of slavery was the true underlying cause of the Texas War of Independence.”

I’ve learned some other facts about slavery in the United States that surprised me. Maybe they’ll surprise you too but you’ll have to wait for my next post to find out …