How Extracurriculars Shaped My Life

DV-PortraitFor many children who grow up in impoverished or at-risk communities, school offers few spaces for healing the pain of racism and sexism. Many students, myself included, spent years of our lives in varying levels of pain inside the education system, but received little assistance in recovering from issues that affected us inside and outside our schools. In this context, extracurricular and after school programs are extremely important spaces for students to heal. I want to tell you my story.

I’m a Black son, born and raised in New Orleans. My family has been in the Deep South for more than 300 years. We are still affected by oppressive policies, flawed educations and systematic errors that hamstring us. When a Black child walks into a classroom or down a street, they carry the history and damages of this violence with them. Some people never have help recovering from the pain.

My mother raised me as a single parent. The year I was born, 88% of all Black households headed by women with children were living below the poverty line. About 40% of the city lived below the poverty line then, and New Orleans was at the epicenter of the War on Drugs. My family was divided, my neighborhood wasn’t safe, and we were financially unstable. What stuck with me most though, was seeing children and adults who looked like me dying quickly from violence, or dying slowly and painfully due to systematic racism and sexism that manifested as public neglect and fear. To be impoverished is to experience a slow, draining violence. To be a child in an impoverished place is traumatizing — the scars can stunt our growth, and leave us underdeveloped and voiceless.

Then when I was 15, Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern U.S. My family was displaced along with more than 1 million others in the region. My mother and I evacuated a day before the storm hit, taking our dog and a week’s worth of clothing. We didn’t expect to be gone long, as the Hurricane was predicted to veer off course. The next morning we watched as the city — our home, our community — sank underwater.

In the months that followed, we relocated first to Georgia, then to South Carolina. In each state people greeted us with open arms and gave us clothing, shelter, and food to get us back on our feet. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because my mind would burn with thoughts I had no words for. In the darkness of my bedroom, I would hear my mother’s muffled crying seep through the wall.

We resettled in a small town in South Carolina, which I came to see was still racially segregated, even inside the high school I attended. I wasn’t able to make many friends because I hurt too badly. I slowly pulled away from everything. This started out as skipping classes, then became skipping school altogether. My mother had to work an hour away, so it took her a while to catch on. By the time she did I was on the verge of dropping out. I didn’t have the words to explain to her why. What I know now is that I didn’t feel invested in the high school I attended during evacuation. It wasn’t possible for me to trust a clearly segregated space with my health, so I could never become vulnerable and express myself.

When we returned home after the storm, I faced new issues. Officers with assault rifles enforced curfews on youth, and my neighbors were stressed by the slowness of relief aid and housing issues. In the media we were still being labeled refugees and criminals. These are just a few of the things that came with my classmates and me into the classrooms, now staffed with more inexperienced teachers than veterans. Few of them were Black, and even fewer of them were from the city. The first semester back was rough. Many of us were rebuilding our homes over the weekends and after school. Traditional athletics, marching band, and work were the major after school programs before the storm. Post-Katrina, we had none.

Fortunately, our school embraced the storm as an opportunity to create a new culture. Its history is as a STEM-focused charter school.

One day, our principal and mathematics teacher walked in our classroom and asked, “Who wants to build a robot?” A few hours later I was a member of the high school robotics team. That initial experience started me off down a long path of healing. It was the first safe haven I had found in all my years at school.

The following year I met Asia, our new director of after school programs. Asia asked us what our interests were, then handed us a sign up sheet listing programs being offered by non-profit organization New Orleans Outreach. I remember immediately signing up for photography, performing arts, and, later, performance poetry.

I’m convinced that these programs saved my life and the lives of many other students. Up to that point I was growing more and more self-destructive. Without after school arts programs, I feel the wounds inside me, from both Hurricane Katrina and from being a Black child in the U.S., would have continued to fester. I would have become more closed off, solitary, and self-destructive.

Those programs helped me to develop a voice. Through them I learned two important lessons: That my story and personhood were valuable, and how to be an agent of positive change. My after school mentors helped me to hear my calling to be an educator and healer. Most of all, they created a space where I learned to heal myself and others through the arts.

Robotics didn’t help me develop a voice, but it did help me to create a new community for myself. After the storm I had lost many friends, but the robotics team allowed me to make new ones. Robotics was a powerful way of looking forward from the storm, as well: we were building something futuristic amidst a city recovering from destruction.

Photography allowed me to use my visual arts skills in a political way. I used my photos of the city’s wreckage and rubble to initiate conversations, to ask of our community, “Don’t you know we children are walking by, playing in, seeing this stuff everyday?” Photography gave me a sense of courage and freedom of movement that allowed me to roam the entire city, and in the process clear my head. It accelerated my recovery.

Performing Arts and Poetry were the most important extracurriculars to me. Black artists who integrated African history, debate, and social-political critique into the arts led the programs. As we developed performance skills we also developed critical consciousness. Before I got involved in performing arts, I was very secretive and protective of myself. I’d experienced painful discrimination as a child on top of the usual New Orleans inner city bleed-out, and eventually it stunted my growth because no space felt safe enough for me to fully express myself.

To develop a voice, first you need an intention: what do you want or need to say, and to whom? Then you need vocabulary to describe all the situations you want people to experience or witness through your words. My performance mentors helped me to recognize my intentions were to heal and protect people from the experiences I’d survived as a child. They set out to help me cultivate a healer and warrior’s vocabulary.  Before the programs, I experienced a great deal of both painful and joyous events, but I had no way to describe them or how they made me feel. The performance programs changed all that.

Performing and learning how to speak and move with purpose taught me that with just my voice and body language I could reclaim space for myself and for my neighbors to thrive.

These program leaders performed first for me and my classmates, demonstrating their methods and the possibilities they’d found through their art. As I learned their methods of performance, I learned new ways to value myself. When I developed my voice, I developed a new sense of self-worth.

I made many friends through these programs, but we were always on different paths. Creative arts were more central to what I wanted to do in the world than they were to my homeboys and homegirls. Ultimately, the extracurricular programs were there to mend a giant tear in the fabric of our community. It gave us all a new network of people to lean on and laugh with.

After high school I attended an extremely competitive and small liberal arts school in New England. I believe I got into college because of those experiences I had in after school programs. On one level, they had allowed me to recover from a great deal of traumatic experiences, both before and after Hurricane Katrina. On another level, the after school programs had given me an awareness and way of viewing the world that helped me to contribute to a knowledge community — I could articulate the ways that my unique experiences as an African son of New Orleans could be a benefit to the college community, and to the ways I wanted to grow.

Performing arts and photography were skills that helped me throughout my time as an undergrad. I began to host performance poetry events and participate in art exhibitions. Through my art I could fearlessly bring a Black voice into a predominantly white college environment. Not only did this help me to protect my own spiritual and mental growth, my performance abilities helped me to develop into a leader on campus.

Initially, my college campus was a barren place for many of us “non-traditional” students. My class came in with the biggest group of students of color in the school’s history. The school hadn’t been very prepared for our arrival though, so we had little support — in part because few people in the community understood our experiences. Because of the after school programs I’d been in, I knew that I wanted to create environments for youth mentorship and nourishment. The college environment allowed me to pioneer those spaces.

And so now, four years later, I’m pursuing a graduate degree in Youth Development.

This year will mark the 9th anniversary of the flood. The experiences I had with those extracurricular programs are part of who I am. They remain a driving force in the goals I’m now pursuing. In 2015 I plan to graduate from university with a Master’s Degree in International Youth Development.

New Orleans Outreach has now become part of a larger youth development network in the city, the New Orleans Kids Project (NOKP). NOKP is a partnership of 25 organizations including the Urban League, New Orleans Public Library, Tulane University, and Ashe Cultural Arts Center, the preeminent African heritage and culture center in the city.

Students can and are dealing with heavy issues that aren’t always visible on the surface. I would like my story to stand as an example of these ways that after school and extracurricular programs can be vital to the health and healing of young people:

Extracurricular programs protect and enrich young people’s lives. They create spaces where trauma can be redressed by building student culture, community, and by providing mentorship. Extracurricular activities can also provide life-sustaining therapy through play, and provide spaces for youth to distinguish themselves and fulfill what makes them unique.

Extracurricular programs expand perspective. They can introduce students to knowledge, ways of thinking and being, and forms of literacy that are undervalued or devalued by state curriculum. The things that are unvalued go untaught. American schools generally value a certain type of literacy and knowledge — things that can be measured on tests. Because tests and tax money determine school funding, this disproportionately limits the perspectives and potential of students at poorer schools. Other forms of literacy are undervalued, like cultural, political, financial and media literacy, and aren’t incorporated into school curriculum. Extracurricular activities often offer one of the few opportunities students get to gain knowledge from outside the school system. High quality content and mentorship is crucial.

Extracurricular programs engage the greater community. “Student” is only one part of a person’s identity. We have lives outside of school, but our lives aren’t always represented in the curriculum. This was especially prevalent in my experience. For instance, my teachers would often dismiss violent lyrics in hip-hop songs, but they would never lead us in deconstructing the songs to understand the content. After school programs have the potential to engage young people and the full complexity of their backgrounds.

Thank you to everyone reading Boosterland. The work your booster clubs do in supporting extracurricular and after school programs is vital. It has an important effect on young people, and the world. Here’s to a year full of light.

 

Know a student who has overcome adversity with the help of extracurricular programs? Share your stories on Facebook, and pass along Dane’s message to the great teachers, volunteers, and mentors in your life.

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