One community arts project begets another.
In 2016, Jon Adam Ross and the In[heir]itance Project created “The Rebecca Play” during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. It was part of a multicity project, funded by the Covenant Foundation, to explore Old Testament stories with local communities that had notable Jewish populations. With input from local residents, Ross and his co-conspirators created a series of plays about a particular biblical matriarch.
What money they raised in each location they gave back to the community in the form of a small grant. The Charleston Jewish Federation received $2,600 to be spent on an interfaith or interracial community-based art project. Rebecca Engel, director of strategic initiatives for the federation, asked artist Sandra Brett to help coordinate the initiative. Brett called around and soon found a willing partner, the Charleston Promise Neighborhood.
Together, they developed a simple idea to bring about a dozen high school students together, some Jewish, some African-American, to hold a conversation around a particular theme. They circulated applications on which students indicated their preferred topic. A consensus was reached: criminal justice reform and the concept of social justice.
“As an artist, I feel strongly that the arts and creativity help you understand a subject (better),” Brett said.
Sherrie Snipes-Williams, CEO of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood, said some of the teenagers live in her organization’s 5.6-mile corridor that extends from the upper part of the Charleston peninsula to the lower part of the city of North Charleston. The project provides a way to remain engaged with these students, she said.
Charleston Promise Neighborhood seeks to provide support to young people from elementary school through college.
“We wanted to create a platform where students of differing faiths and differing backgrounds could come together and talk about an issue that’s prevalent today, social justice,” Snipes-Williams said.
On Tuesday, the group had its second of four meetings, this one using poetry as an artistic tool and featuring Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker. (The first session, led by Brett, used visual art as the tool; the next will employ music.)
The students, all ninth graders, came from Early College High School, Academic Magnet, James Island Charter High School, Porter-Gaud and Burke High School.
Ninth grade is a pivotal moment in the lives of many teens, she noted.
“Helping them have productive conversations with students from different walks of life would create thought-provoking dialogue, build bridges and help students put this really big topic (in perspective),” she said.
Radia Heyward, community engagement program manager for Charleston Promise Neighborhood, facilitated the conversation. Amaker first asked the students gathered at Burke High School for their definition of social justice. Words such as “etiquette” and “equality” were tossed out. Someone said social justice meant seeing the other as an individual. Another student said it requires looking beyond the surface.
“Cool, all right,” Amaker responded encouragingly.
Then he offered prompts for poetry writing, such as “I used to...” and “I wish that...” and “I remember...,” instructing the teens to riff on the social justice theme, and to share something personal.
“It can be intimidating at times, but I always encourage people to tell the truth,” he said.
The students quickly generated a verse or two, shared what they wrote, then discussed it.
Must there be injustice in order to know what justice is? If tomorrow all were equal, would a new “other” to oppose be required?
The next session is Tuesday at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue where students will discuss the Hanukkah holiday and set their recently composed verses to beats, thanks to a collaboration with Carolina Studios.
A final session and public presentation will take place after the holidays.