December 20, 2013 by T. Gregory Argall
This is my 52nd posting in TGA Fridays. Nearly a year’s worth of Fridays. (There was an extra bonus Friday one Saturday morning back in April.) Looking back at the last twelve months of bloggery, it seems to be mainly about me. What I’m doing, what I think about something, where I was when something happened. Me me me. It’s my blog, so I suppose that’s understandable and justified, but it’s probably about time I talk about someone else and what they are doing.
So I’m going to talk about my friend Joeann.
Joeann is an artist and an actor. She is also a compassionate, intuitive person. She recently started a project, partnered with Dr. Judith Davis, a clinical psychologist and educator. Using Judy’s background in neuropsychology and Joeann’s extensive knowledge and talent in art and art history, they are developing a program geared towards at-risk youth between 9 and 18 years of age. In simple terms, Joeann will be teaching art and art history/understanding to kids that are “in the system,” or under the care of the state in one way or another.
“At-risk youth” is a bit of a catch-all term but basically it means somebody or something damaged them years ago and it is defining their behaviour as they get older. These are the kids no one talks about, the ones that, as a society, we try to ignore. But it will only get worse unless they get help to dig themselves out. Generally the damage that was done to them, either through childhood abuse or neglect, has left them emotionally shut out. Emotions get in the way of being tough and you have to be tough to survive. Often, the victims turn into victimizers as they get older, sometimes quite violently.
Teaching at-risk youth that actions have consequences usually results in them making a greater effort to avoid being caught. They need to understand why actions have consequences and that understanding requires emotion. Bridging the gap that the kids have created to separate themselves from feeling is difficult. Partly because of the system they are in, showing emotion is perceived as weakness. Thus, they are understandably resistant to “getting in touch with their emotions.”
So Joeann’s approach is to just show them how to appreciate art. Subtly and without fanfare they understand that art is all about expressing emotion, but without any indication of weakness. Eventually, the students willingly express their own emotions and in doing so begin to heal and recover from their childhood damage.
That’s a simplified, layman’s explanation of the program. It involves diverse techniques and neurobiological understanding that I’m simply not qualified to explain. Some have unfairly compared it to Art Therapy, but the program has a different approach and reaches much deeper, with greater positive goals. Again, I’d be doing it an injustice by getting to details beyond my training.
It doesn’t matter. What I’m leading to is that the most amazing part of the whole program is Joeann herself, because she immediately connects with the students.
In this context, “students” refers to incarcerated youth, for the most part. The don’t like to connect. They are instinctively resistant to any authority figure, as a survival skill. The authority figures themselves tend to categorize the students as dangerous, volatile, or unpredictable. But Joeann doesn’t treat them as victims or victimizers. She treats them like people. Because, under everything else, all the damage, all labels, all the resistance, that’s what they are; People.
Joeann walks into the room fearlessly, with no pre-judgements, no opinions pre-formed. And the first contact, first connection is crucial. Joeann has done some demo sessions with students to show the potential of the program and weeks later students have asked, “When’s that art lady coming back? We liked her.” And, again as a matter of instinct, these kids don’t like anybody.
So, getting back to me me me for a moment, I am impressed and awed by the talent, skill, creativity, compassion, and courage that Joeann pours into this program. I am proud to call her my friend.
Also, I helped set up the website. So, yeah, me me me.
Anyway, have a merry Christmas, a bountiful Kwanzaa, a joyous winter solstice, a rockin’ post-Hanukkah season, or just a nice day. Whatever works for you.
And try to be nice to each other because, really, that’s what it’s all about.
ps Tomorrow is Joeann’s birthday, so if you could fill the comments section with “Happy birthday”s, that’d be really cool.