Photo by Tim Aguero.

Photo by Tim Aguero.

Jamil Suleman served as the Mentor Artist to the most recent session of Creative Justice, our program offering an arts-based alternative to incarceration for court-involved youth in King County. In this Guest Post, Jamil shares insight into what the group of participants learned and accomplished:

I’ve done this before, but there was something different about this group…

The process for me as a Teaching Artist focusing on Hip Hop Culture is usually the same every time, no matter the location or age bracket. Take a group of young people, have them produce music and film, lace the classes with relevant cultural studies that influence the content to be more socially conscious, crank out a legit business plan for merchandise and performances, and build a mini-movement in a handful of months. The result is a cohesive group of artists who, after taking some risks to express themselves, if everything worked out as planned, come out with a stronger sense of self-confidence and reaping the rewards as a team.

There’s nothing like seeing all the weeks of hard work pay off when your shirts sell out after you rocked a set of music that really puts your thoughts and feelings out there. To share your story, and to see it being appreciated by people from all backgrounds, is a life changing experience that sets the tone for a young person’s dreams and pursuits from there on forward. It’s experiential proof. Now, there is no doubt, if they put their mind to it and work hard with a small group of their friends, they can do it.

It can be done.

We started with a group of youth, some who knew each other, and some who were completely new to the area. We’d come in, twice a week, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, and start with a brief activity or meal. Considering the political climate we are in, with everything from the protests at Standing Rock to the election of Donald Trump occurring during our session, you can imagine the dialogue was always lively. It was these conversations that gave a foundation for our art work.

Once we started to form a cohesive core, we looked at all of the various social and cultural issues we discussed and experienced, and decided to pick a campaign to focus our creative project on. With #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL going viral, the youth chose their own movement: #FreeTheYouth. Stemming from the idea of the everyday struggle, the class picked #FreeTheYouth as a way to give voice to youth experiencing incarceration and the school to prison pipeline. That message is what fueled the music, video, shirt design, and the overall purpose of our Creative Justice session.

Photo by Tim Aguero.

Photo by Tim Aguero.

And in early December, after having wrapped up our last session of Creative Justice 2016, I look at our class of young high schoolers, who’ve gone through their own personal journeys of ups and downs in and out of the courts and foster homes…beaming. They did it. And each one of them is taking home $40 tonight after selling several of their #FreeTheYouth shirts and wristbands they designed while in class. One of our students had a breakthrough moment when she performed in front of a crowd for the second time, now without needing her lyrics. Fear conquered, mission accomplished.

Proof. It can be done.

That’s the main mission for me. To be able to be given a real opportunity, to be vulnerable with students, to be their friend, their ear, their family member…to just be there for them. After having worked several jobs in the field, I can say with confidence that Creative Justice really gets to the core of what our youth and community needs. The heart to heart relationships we build, that lay the groundwork for the foundation of educating and learning from one another, and using our creative talents to express that growth. It allows us to build the necessary trust with each other, so when we make our art, it can be true and authentic, and when we share it, it’s that much more impactful.

I was right about this group being different. I felt, this time, that I was closer to my purpose while teaching with Creative Justice, and the dynamics of the class really prove that. There are always obstacles, and you can expect that things won’t be easy some times. But the way we were able to navigate throughout the quarter allowed us to grow in ways I wasn’t expecting, which gave us a synergy that I feel lasts past the program, and resonates with our entire community.

Photo by Tim Aguero.

Photo by Tim Aguero.

#FreeTheYouth is a movement, and it’s not going anywhere until our youth are free. Free from the shackles of judgement from systems that have been created to silence us. In the time and age we live in, it’s going to be up to our youth to make sure we make it through, for them and their children. After having gone through this session with a dozen very strong and confident young people, who are now seeing their own potential to inspire, I have faith.

It can be done.

#FreeTheYouth