ARTS AND ACTIVISM
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
Some look at the city of Flint and see only urban blight, a city drained of its soul. Others, like Natasha Thomas-Jackson, Executive Director of RAISE IT UP!, see a city alive with creativity, a community on the brink of rediscovering its voice. Her non-profit RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts and Awareness was founded to ensure that the creativity and collective voices of the youth in her hometown are discovered, nurtured and expressed.
“We want kids to understand the systematic aspects of social change,” said Thomas-Jackson, “and how their art really can affect change in their community.”
RAISE IT UP!, (RIU) launched in 2009 with funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint and support from LiNK Community Arts, an organization creating opportunities for artists to be and become active change agents in greater Flint.
“You can be an artist in many different ways,” said Thomas-Jackson, “but your art can also provide creative solutions for the neighborhood. The kids arrive wanting to do poetry, or dance, or music. But they soon realize that they can use their art not just for their own personal growth, but also apply it to their community. Art is activism.”
“My perspective on social justice came from my mother,” said Thomas-Jackson. “She encouraged me to get involved.” Thomas-Jackson and Lyndava Williams, her mother and Program Director for RAISE IT UP!, continue to work as a team for social change.
“I started performing as a child and got involved in all kinds of arts activities. I was strongly influenced by several groups brought to Flint by the Ruth Mott Foundation. One group was the Urban Bush Women. When I first saw them perform I felt transformed”, shared Thomas-Jackson. Founded in 1984, this performance ensemble is dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change.
Later, Thomas-Jackson had the opportunity to perform with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Making Genes Dance, an Emmy-winning documentary investigating the impact of genetic research through movement and theatre.
“These groups showed me, in a profound way, that art could be a great agent for social change.” RAISE IT UP! envisions a world where youth are creative and critical thinkers, actively shaping their lives and the life of their community. They’re making it happen in many ways.
Their group mentorship program brings together youth with everyone from graphic designers to community organizers. “We have folks from 15-40,” said Thomas-Jackson. “Kids learn that art is creativity, and that can be applied to many things, not just painting or performing. They end up working on albums, chat books, whatever organically evolves from the mentoring collaborations. The mentorship works because it allows people to create natural connections that occur in the monthly meetings.”
A RIU partnership with Edible Flint put the focus on food as social justice. RAISE IT UP! Youth Organizers went into several economically challenged zip codes in Flint to assess the neighborhood’s access to healthy foods. Using a standardized assessment tool, the kids visited convenience stores, gas stations and other food outlets to determine which healthy foods were available. This assessment produced data showing the inequities present in food outlets in low-income communities of color.
“For a lot of these kids social justice issues are a whole new way of thinking. They were able to see firsthand how food and social justice are related,” said Thomas-Jackson. The project also focused on engaging youth who live and attend school in the affected areas as agents of change to help address these inequities.
At the end of the project the youth and their families will be invited to a workshop on healthy cooking. “The workshop is designed to get the parents on the same page as the kids who are learning about the role of food in social justice,” said Thomas-Jackson.
The youth were paid by Edible Flint to do the food assessments. “The idea is to get kids paid for their work, to develop their sense of social entrepreneurship,” said Thomas-Jackson. “It’s a way to show kids you can make a career out of helping your community and doing your art.”
RIU youth organizers have planned and promoted community performances using their own original performance-arts pieces to explore a wide variety of personal and social issues. They have partnered with the Genesee County Healthy Sexuality Coalition to promote a text-messaging service that allows teens to connect with local resources to receive accurate information regarding relationship or reproductive health issues. Youth organizers also created several songs and jingles for the coalition to use in commercials and PSAs.
RIU’s newest program is recruiting and training youth poets from Flint to compete, for the first time, at the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival and Competition. Held this year in San Francisco, this will be the 14th year for what is billed as the biggest ongoing poetry event in the world. The event will bring together over 500 youth from all over the world for a week of workshops, town hall meetings, activism, and art. The festival culminates in a poetry slam that is featured on HBO. Besides the goal of winning the competition, Thomas-Jackson hopes the students they train this year can be paid to train students for next year’s festival.
Although this nationally acclaimed artist doesn’t do as much hip hop or spoken word these days, Thomas-Jackson and her husband are applying the principles of arts activism with their three children, ages 2-9. “We’re always taking them to community events,” said Thomas-Jackson. “They are learning at a very early age that each person has a responsibility to their community.” And community for Natasha Thomas-Jackson will always be Flint.
“Flint has created so many talented people,” said Thomas-Jackson. “But they often leave. Our Raise It Up! kids are committed to Flint and take great pride in it. They are learning that if you want to see changes, you have to stay. There are so many wonderful people and resources in Flint, so many great organizations. Together we can change the story of Flint.” And together they are.