In art, teens find their voice

Non­profit teaches trou­bled stu­dents to chan­nel pain into cre­ativ­ity

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - john.glionna@la­times.com with John M. Glionna

When­ever Amir Jack­son en­cour­ages trou­bled young peo­ple to use words and images to plumb their pain, he tells his own story, open­ing a pri­vate vein right there in front of them.

As a child, Jack­son wrote “dark and melan­choly” po­ems about flee­ing an abu­sive home in Rochester, N.Y. He re­luc­tantly showed them to an aunt, who asked him where they came from.

“From no place,” he told her. “They’re just words.”

“No,” she said. “They come from some­where.”

She en­cour­aged him to keep writ­ing. Even­tu­ally, a once-in­vis­i­ble boy long­ing to be seen forged an iden­tity by free­ing his writer’s voice. Now 35, Jack­son runs the Nur­ture the Cre­ative Mind Foun­da­tion in Og­den, en­cour­ag­ing Utah teenagers to fol­low his lead.

“I try to ex­plain to stu­dents where my pain comes from,” he said. “There’s of­ten not a lot of trust at first, so I make my­self vul­ner­a­ble. It’s eas­ier to trust some­one who’s vul­ner­a­ble.”

Jack­son brings self-re­al­ized ad­vice to a mostly white state whose roots are steeped in reli­gion. He’s an out­lier here, an African Amer­i­can in a New York Yan­kees base­ball cap. His fa­ther was Mus­lim but he grew up Bap­tist “with a pro­found re­spect for spir­i­tu­al­ity” and briefly con­verted to the Mor­mon faith.

But Jack­son smooths per­ceived dif­fer­ences through the pierc­ing reach of his pro­grams: his non­profit foun­da­tion has placed brightly painted, re­con­di­tioned pi­anos around Og­den for those in­spired to sit down and play. He has do­nated free gui­tars to poor stu­dent mu­si­cians and or­ga­nized a one-day Starv­ing for Ed­u­ca­tion hunger strike that raised $3,500.

Stu­dents built a “re­gret box,” in which res­i­dents placed writ­ten re­grets later burned in a public cer­e­mony to sym­bol­i­cally cast them away.

The les­son from th­ese and other foun­da­tion ac­tiv­i­ties: It doesn’t take much money to make an im­pact.

He founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2007, and for the first seven years worked full time while run­ning his pro­gram at night on $26,000 a year. His bud­get is now $68,000 — money gained through grants, con­sult­ing and speak­ing en­gage­ments. This year, he has been able to pay him­self a salary to run the pro­gram full time. He’s also hired a dozen in­struc­tors, paid $10 to $25 an hour, depend­ing on the project — some based at his head­quar­ters, oth­ers out on the street.

The foun­da­tion of­fers pro­grams for stu­dents in var­i­ous artis­tic dis­ci­plines, in­clud­ing ra­dio, theater and photography. The aim is fos­ter­ing artis­tic ex­pres­sion but also ex­or­cis­ing demons, as Jack­son did through his writ­ing long ago.

The foun­da­tion cre­ated a youth-pro­duced mag­a­zine called “Blank Space,” which in­cluded a 15-year-old “Dear Abby” who an­swered teens’ ques­tions. Jack­son helped pub­lish a book of po­ems by sex­u­ally abused teenage girls, as well as a chil­dren’s book called “Fred­die the Pen­guin” about bul­ly­ing and self-con­fi­dence.

He shows teens they don’t have to flee to Seat­tle or Port­land for free ex­pres­sion; it’s right here at home. He con­cen­trates not just on at-risk kids but those from good homes. The last thing he wants to do is type­cast any­one.

“He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Amy Midori, 18, the for­mer Dear Abby. “Utah is so con­ser­va­tive, which sucks for free-spir­ited kids. Be­fore Amir, we didn’t have an out­let.”

It wasn’t easy. Many, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tors, re­sisted his ideas. Then there was the woman who said, “You don’t seem like a nor­mal black guy.”

“The only ex­po­sure most peo­ple here get to other races is through TV,” he said. “Utah is not racist — just ig­no­rant from a lack of ex­po­sure. And that’s re­ally no­body’s fault.”

Jack­son came to Utah to serve in the Air Force. Later, while study­ing psy­chol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion at lo­cal We­ber State Uni­ver­sity, he brought an idea to his vol­un­teer job as a teach­ing as­sis­tant at a blue-col­lar el­e­men­tary school.

He wanted to teach self-em­pow­er­ment through po­etry. The idea was to break down song lyrics that were an ev­ery­day part of stu­dents’ lives, to show that lyrics with­out melody are re­ally just po­ems — words with­out mu­sic.

Five teach­ers re­jected his idea be­fore one ac­cepted. The class was a hit. One 12-year-old wrote that she lived in­side a cage. An­other called on Su­per­man to come save her be­cause “I am in the dark.”

Jack­son wanted to be that sav­ior: His own past had pre­pared him for this.

He coaxed stu­dents to write about their pain, and then show­cased their ef­forts. Like his aunt be­fore him, he sought to show young peo­ple that he be­lieved in them.

In 2010, at a treat­ment cen­ter for young girls, Jack­son en­cour­aged stu­dents to write po­etry about their pasts. But staff ob­jected: “Here I was, un­li­censed and un­trained, and th­ese girls were shar­ing things in class they didn’t even dis­cuss in coun­sel­ing. Peo­ple were threat­ened.”

The po­ems even­tu­ally be­came a book ti­tled “Yes, I Am STILL Here.” One teen penned “Ig­no­rance Is Bliss,” about her abuse:

Tell me why a child should know the things I do?

And don’t you dare say that it’ll make me stronger, that in the end I’ll be glad.

Be­cause ig­no­rance is bliss. I want that back. That year, Jack­son opened a space in Og­den’s re­fur­bished train sta­tion, now the site of regular seminars and youth strat­egy ses­sions.

One sign on the wall says, “Don’t Give Up: Get Cre­ative.” And an­other: “If Not for Cre­ativ­ity, We’d All Be Drag­ging Our Knuck­les.” He drives a van cov­ered with mu­rals — like an artist burst­ing with some­thing to say.

Og­den has em­braced him. One cof­fee­house dis­plays “I Am,” a se­ries of pho­tos that his stu­dents took of teens at a re­for­ma­tory. Be­cause the stu­dents could not show faces, each sub­ject wears a mask.

Stu­dents at first wanted mon­ster faces, but fi­nally chose a blank mask. “The mask rep­re­sents how peo­ple re­ally see them,” Jack­son said. “They don’t feel peo­ple see them for who they re­ally are.”

Jack­son will soon speak at We­ber State about a learn­ing ap­proach with no class bells, grades or stan­dard­ized tests, one that’s pulling aside Utah’s con­ser­va­tive mask — one stu­dent at a time.

Thomas B. Sza­lay For The Times

AMIR JACK­SON, cen­ter, is the founder and force be­hind Nur­ture the Cre­ative Mind Foun­da­tion.

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