Creative Justice Mentor Artist Nikkita Oliver

Creative Justice Mentor Artist Nikkita Oliver. Photo by Tim Aguero.

Creative Justice is 4Culture’s arts-based alternative to incarceration for King County youth. Spoken-word artist, teaching artist and anti-racist organizer, Nikkita Oliver led the final  project session of our inaugural year of programming. Oliver believes that the power of the arts is in the power of our voices, and works alongside young people, helping them develop creative skills and tell their stories. From September 15 through December 3, she mentored twelve teen participants twice per week as they spoke truth to power through writing, performance, poetry, theater, music, and visual arts, even publishing a chapbook—Things I Need You to Know—at the end of their session. Here, Nikkita shares her thoughts on the experience: 

I began the 4th session of Creative Justice’s inaugural year with so much love and hope, as well as a bit of fear and trepidation. I have been a performance artist for years, so I feel less and less stage fright. Yet there is nothing quite like the anxiety welling up inside me just before I start a new teaching artist residency with youth. Young people can spot a fake from a mile away! They know if you are genuinely engaging with them, they know if you want to be there, they know if you truly care. They always demand authenticity and honesty from the moment they meet you—as they should.

Teaching is a constant dance. Each day has a different rhythm and you can fight it or be responsive to it. I have learned to be responsive; to expect and accept with humility that my plans will likely change. Teaching art requires the artist to be a learner! I have learned to be flexible and listen to the dynamic and self-determined hearts, minds and spirits that invite me to be a part of their creative process. As much as I may think I have something to teach, I have so much more to learn and those lessons often come from the youth.

Each day the youth artists brought their full, whole selves—their hopes and dreams, their struggles and fights, their growing edges and gains, their addictions and triumphs. No day was without a mountain or two to climb. No day ended without a mountain peak summited. It would be easy to look at the numbers, the attendance, the chapbook, the photos, the final celebration and miss the many important nuances—the daily challenges, the daily gains, the silent prayers, the open hearts, the bowed backs that stood a little straighter, the turned down heads that looked up for at least a short moment, or the attention span that extended a few seconds longer. I live for the small day-to-day moments because that is where the change happens exponentially yet often goes unseen.

Oliver led the participants in Session 4 in publishing a chapbook of their writing, titled Things I Need You to Know.

Oliver led the participants in Session 4 in publishing a chapbook of their writing, titled Things I Need You to Know. Photo by Tim Aguero.

While I am incredibly proud of the chapbook, the photography, and the powerful culminating 4th session celebration, I am most inspired by the day-to-day achievements. There were hard days. Days where the youth didn’t like me, didn’t like each other, and didn’t like their selves, but they kept coming back for more! They did not let fear nor hard feelings stop them from completing what they started. They allowed their selves to be challenged and accepted discomfort as a place to grow. They kept working on their selves. They continued digging into their creativity exposing places of hope, trauma, power, struggle, and resilience. In the end, while I may have facilitated a creative process, they did the work of Creative Justice.

Everyday many youth who are court-involved are forced to take risks for survival, and sometimes those risks come with unexpected consequences. However, the reality is that youth everywhere take risks—some youth simply have more safety nets to catch them when they fall and more opportunity to make mistakes from which they can learn and grow. Art is a risk. It is an opportunity to make mistakes and figure out which ones are worth keeping. In my opinion, this is what Creative Justice is about and why we must keep striving to build more art-based alternatives to incarceration in King County.