Ypsi-based program partners with formerly incarcerated writers to help youth heal through creativity

Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel has been running Telling It, a creative arts program for underserved youth, in the Ypsilanti area since 2002. But she says she'd never seen the program's young participants as engaged as when a Maine actors' troupe comprised exclusively of formerly incarcerated people came to Parkridge Community Center a few years ago.


"(The youth) bought in totally hook, line, and sinker," Gordon-Gurfinkel says. "They were willing to do whatever those folks invited them to do."


Telling It, which is open to all young people registered at Parkridge, uses physical activities, creativity prompts, and spoken word, writing, and visual arts activities to help young people learn and heal through creative self-expression. Gordon-Gurfinkel is a trained expert in using theater arts as a learning tool, but knows her experience as a white, middle-class person is very different from those of the youth she works with. So she puts an emphasis on hiring staff or bringing in guests who can better relate to the youth and the traumas they often bring to the group.


That sparked an idea to offer special programming this year by two formerly incarcerated Michigan residents who have made a name for themselves through writing and other expressive arts: Cozine Welch, managing editor of The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing; and Asia Johnson, a writer and "bail disruptor" with The Bail Project in Detroit.


Gordon-Gurfinkel says Welch and Johnson's experiences may "echo or have resonance with some of the teens," noting they both know the community well.


"Asia is from Detroit and Cozine is familiar with the neighborhood, and they're the same race (as the teens)," she says. "They're also both fabulous poets and word-meisters and are really able to engage with the youth that way. The fact that they're both returning citizens is last on the list, but should not be ignored, as some of the teens will relate to that."


Gordon-Gurfinkel established Telling It in 2002 in partnership with SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti and Ozone House in Ann Arbor. The effort was based on a similar program she'd organized while living in San Francisco. Telling It started as a program to promote literacy but has evolved to include a mental health component over time.


"(Youth) didn't respond to it as a literacy program but began disclosing and processing significant hurts and traumas that took us by surprise," Gordon-Gurfinkel says. "We've got Telling It social workers on staff now, and everything we do … is really in service of healing and learning, with more emphasis on healing."


Sha'Kira Gardner, an 18-year-old senior in high school, recently started her fifth year participating in Telling it. She says she likes having a supportive space to hang out with her friends and says the "Vegas Rule" in the group — what people say in Telling It stays in Telling it — is important to youth.


Having that rule in place makes youth feel comfortable sharing feelings and thoughts they might not otherwise open up about.


"My favorite part is the freedom of self-expression," Gardner says.


Despite Telling It's successes, Gordon-Gurfinkel says last year was rough for the program. There was some turnover in leadership, which made it harder to meet the teens' emotional needs. And those emotional needs became more serious when a young man who was friends with several Telling It regulars was shot and killed at an Ypsilanti party store.


"There was so much going on for them in a very profound way, and they were bringing it into the sessions," Gordon-Gurfinkel says. "I felt we weren't meeting their needs emotionally, or in other ways."


She notes that the teens often engage "cautiously" at the beginning of a school year, but over time, they begin to "exercise that muscle of being able to talk and participate." She remembered how engaged the young people had been with the theater troupe from Maine and knew she had to bring in guests who could "activate and engage" them. That's when she came across Welch and Johnson, and invited them to do workshops with the youth.


Each Thursday through at least the first semester of the 2019-2020 school year, Welch and Johnson will be leading Telling It programming. Telling It staff also recently applied for grants that would allow for the extension of Welch and Johnson's programming through the end of the school year. (That would supplement funding from Telling It's existing sponsors, the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office and Washtenaw Coordinated Funders.)


Welch knows the impact that writing and other forms of artistic expression can have on youth, because writing for the The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing while serving a term for second-degree murder gave him hope.


"I submitted to the Review and was accepted, and that was the first time I thought maybe things I wrote for myself had some weight and value," he says.


After he was released, he became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Program at the University of Michigan (U-M), as well as The Atonement Project, as a way to educate others about the school-to-prison pipeline and to promote healing.


Welch knew Gordon-Gurfinkel as a fellow U-M lecturer and was excited when he learned what she was doing through Telling It.


He says he plans to bring a "loosely scripted program" each week but expects to let the youth drive the direction of each session. He hopes for the year to culminate in a presentation or show by the youth involved, and the production of a small journal or chapbook of their writing.

Welch says he's excited about partnering with the Youth Arts Alliance, a Michigan-based nonprofit that recently helped the dream of having a world-class recording studio in the community center come true.


"It's a great collaboration," he says. "Oh, the possibilities that creates, to have people willing and able to show them how to utilize the equipment and help record it for them, and putting that together with performance poetry."


Johnson says she wants to learn what the teens' passions and challenges are and to help them cultivate their passions in a productive way.


She says she only learned how powerful poetry could be after she started writing poems in a prison workshop, and she hopes to share that practice and its benefits with youth.


"I know if you're … struggling in school, the last thing you want to do is write," she says. "But if I can get them talking about things that make them happy or sad and put that on paper, I think they will see the benefit and value for them. That's how it happened for me."


Johnson says she's eager to share her story with the youth as both "cautionary tale and inspiration," but she's just as excited about learning from the young participants.


"(These youth) are our future, and their thoughts and aspirations mean so much because they are shaping the world," she says. "I'm excited to learn from them."


Three weekly sessions of Telling It are currently being held at Parkridge Community Center. One session for youth ages 8-11 is held on Monday afternoons, and sessions for teens are held Monday and Thursday nights. More information about the Telling It program is available on U-M's Literature, Science, and the Arts website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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