I recently saw a BBC clip about the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis — who devoted her time in Theresienstadt to teaching and sharing art with the children there — and the heartbreakingly beautiful pictures that they drew as a result. The clip begins with the question: What Can Art Do When Horror Comes Calling?
It’s a question, in various less overwhelming yet urgent situations, that we always seek to explore at Engaging the Senses. What can art do when misfortune comes calling? What can poetry do for those in pain, who are disenfranchised, for all of us who seek to find some deeper meaning in the midst of our humdrum daily efforts?
We were honored to find one more means of continuing to ask and answer this question when the actor and child welfare advocate Matt Lillard brought the pilot program he launched in 2017 at Five Acres nonprofit to our attention. The 5JammaSlamma in 2017 manifested as Matt’s vision to introduce the power of poetry to children living in foster care, with a week-long program that connected Five Acres’ foster youth with renowned recording artists, beatboxers and slam poets.
This year, with our help and support, the program expanded to six months, including a final workshop and performance that was co-led by Hawaii’s Poet Laureate, Kealoha. “What started off as Engaging the Senses’ offer to pay for our 5JammaSlamma party has now turned into a year-round commitment to fund the teaching of poetry to the kids living on campus at Five Acres,” said Lillard. “It’s a brilliant gift that will continue to harvest beauty from the darkness, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
I had the great privilege of watching some of the young people participating in the workshops and event during their last two days of practice. Each of them had lived through experiences that could have destroyed them. Each was still standing, still reaching for the light despite endless obstacles, and in Matt Lillard, Kealoha, and Kat Magill of Say Word — who with her team had helped them craft their poems over many months — they had light-sharers who believed in their worth and encouraged them (with kindness, with humor, sometimes with tough love) to trust their unique voices.
The celebratory 5JammaSlamma spoken word event on April 21, 2018 in Los Angeles was a “friendraiser” event for Five Acres, asking for advocacy for foster youth rather than funds. Along with the youth poets from Five Acres, poets Kealoha, Sekou Andrews, Steve Connell, Kat Magill, beatboxer Joshua Silverstein and other intriguing artists also performed. I heard from a dozen people there that this was one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking events they’d ever been to. For the kids who performed in front of a mixed crowd of Hollywood insiders, parents, poets, staff, and new advocates, it was a time for them to show what they are really made of, and they brought it, to cheers, tears, and standing ovations from the audience.
“In many ways, children living in foster care suffer from lack of visibility in our community. They’re growing up without permanent families or access to the kind of life skills and enriching experiences that a typical child may have,” said Chanel Boutakidis, Five Acres CEO. “5JammaSlamma not only provides this kind of experience but gives our community a chance to tell others about their situation and get involved as supporters.”
I think some lives were changed that evening: that’s what art can do. I can’t wait to see what the young people of Five Acres will create and the lives they might change in turn with the voices they’ve discovered inside themselves!