Olisa Enrico-Johnson is a Mentor Artist in our Creative Justice program, an arts-based alternative to youth incarceration in King County. After leading a group of court-involved youth through three months of creating and dialogue, she shares her insights:
The first day of our 12 week session. Chairs set in a circle. A black journal on each chair. I sat on the floor waiting as they came in. The postures posited, who was this woman? What does she want from me? The thing about young people is that they can smell bologna from a mile away. Knowing this I left all of my processed fake mindset in my past. I know that if they do not trust me and my intentions that our time together will be fruitless so I make an offer of truth. I tell them that they can ask me anything on this day and this day only. Stumped by my offering they asked simple questions about my life, do you have children, how old are they, what’s your favorite color. The most important question hangs in the air “Why are you doing this program?” I shared my truth and in return they shared theirs. From our first story circle to our last they were as amazingly wonderful as I had hoped they would be.
We began the 12 week session with ‘getting to know you’ and each week we built together, created together and ate together. We examined the world around us and our place in it. We dipped our hands into the soil as we planted seeds that we would take turns watering, recording our hopes for our plants in our black journals. We hoped they would grow.
Each week we planted metaphorical seeds. I hoped they would grow. We talked about food deserts and created food art. We learned about the power that words have over water and contemplated our bodies as bodies of water that words in this world have power over. We shared stories of identity and interrogated how we fit into our worlds, discovering how our realities may or may not overlap. We wrote poetry. We laughed. We sang karaoke and discussed how music exists in our lives and in our culture. We wrote poetry, made mosaics, designed shirts and painted on canvas. Each week we dabbled in a new art form, a smorgasbord of creative endeavors. Most of these forms I had truly minimal experience in. That didn’t matter. We were trying new things and producing works of art!
Each week we gathered to examine the “Stories of Self” through artistic expression. From the beginning it was my desire to impart to them that we are all learning and that we have not arrived. I remember being 15 years old feeling as if I was done growing. The most important lesson I have learned over the years is that I am always learning. Life is a journey and we arrive at the destination when we die. It was my goal as the Mentor Artist to not only introduce them to art forms but to also expose myself to new art forms and in that way model the truth that we are all growing and that we must nourish ourselves, mind and body.
When we culminated for our final presentation the youth represented themselves. I received kudos for the work that they had done. I smiled and thanked people for their compliments. I would reply each time “It was them, their ideas, their work. Aren’t they amazing?” I led the journey but they walked the path. It is Indeed the journey that is the thing, it is the process of discovery, of uncovering our own human potential. Plant seeds in fertile soil, water them and let them bask free in the light of the sun. They just might grow.