These Youth Are Transforming the Trauma of Poverty With Raw, Original...

Diversity and Equity

These Youth Are Transforming the Trauma of Poverty With Raw, Original Storytelling

By Susan Colangelo     Nov 1, 2017

These Youth Are Transforming the Trauma of Poverty With Raw, Original Storytelling

This article is part of the collection: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artist Collective is a 501c3 organization that works to document St. Louis, Missouri through art and word. Professional artists work alongside African American urban youth 15-24 years-old to collect stories, reframe and retell them to promote understanding, pride, intergenerational relationships and literacy.

Story Stitchers: They Think It’s OK!

Story Stitchers focus work on public health issues, including gun violence. The Collective works in hip hop, spoken word, photography and videography, creating effective messaging informed by youth. A campaign called Pick the City UP includes music, poetry and live performances presented in both cultural venues and in parks and community centers in neighborhoods where the youth live. Story Stitchers generate and present all original, all St. Louis creative work. Youth are given an opportunity to earn money by generating new works including songs, poetry, and videos which the organization in turn publishes. Youth also earn money through performance, documentation and administrative work with the Collective.

Story Stitchers: Pick the City UP

St. Louis, like many American cities, suffers from decades of institutionalized discrimination that leaves some residents, especially citizens of color, living in impoverished neighborhoods with under-funded public schools, little access to fresh foods, unsafe parks, and unending gun violence. Stitchers youth and adult artists report hearing gunshots and sirens when home at night and most have lost friends or family members to gun violence. Story Stitchers works show African American youth in positive roles as active, leading members of their generation and of the community at large. Writing is raw, authentic and sends messages of hope and solutions in fun, entertaining ways such as hip hop and dance. Visual artists document performers and produce photographs and videos that carry the messaging out online long after the PA is packed up.

Story Stitchers: Tylea and Emeara at the .ZACK

In St. Louis in the past five years, 15,000 victims were murdered, shot or robbed at gunpoint. Over 90% of St. Louis residents who were killed by guns were African-American, and two-thirds were under the age of 30. The Circuit Attorney reports there were 2,092 shootings in 2015 and half involved youth age 25 or under. During a youth-led discussion, Lt. Col. Robinson, Deputy Chief of St. Louis Metropolitan Police told Stitchers, "Criminal activity amongst teenagers in the city is at a very high rate and they do have access to illegal weapons. We need intervention and outreach along with enforcement in order to solve violent crime involving teens." Story Stitchers work in the realm of intervention.

Literacy and education are key components in the fight to save lives. Children learn to read through grade three and then teaching switches to content and children are expected to read to learn. If a child is not reading proficiently and on grade level by the end of third grade, his chances of becoming a high school dropout increase. In St. Louis, the catastrophic consequences most greatly impact Black male youth. If an African American boy drops out of high school his chances of becoming incarcerated rise disproportionately. According to award winning writer and activist Matthew Lynch, 22 percent of people jailed in the U.S. are black males who are high school dropouts and over 80 percent of the incarcerated population is high school dropouts. Without strong literacy skills and a high school diploma, they have few employment prospects, will earn less over their lifetimes than their peers with a diploma ($260,000 less over a lifetime, according to the US Census), will be less healthy and will live a shorter life span.

Youth who are reading on grade level are more likely to stay in school. Music in familiar hip hop rhythms can serve as a catalyst to help youth write. Story Stitchers work collaboratively to generate research, rhythms, writing and recordings that eventually become live performances, PSA spots and educational videos with strong messaging. Art is created with a social justice vision, pushes hard against implicit biases, ignorance and violence, and works towards a more peaceful St. Louis for all. Writing for a purpose that is agreed on by all is inspirational to teens and young adults. The trauma of poverty and violence is transformed into poetry with a purpose. Skills developed include writing, editing, listening, public speaking, character education, citizenship, technology related skills such as video and audio editing, and business skills related to marketing such as graphic design, social media and image development. Youth find mentors, friends, creative outlets, a safe house, hope and respect from peers and the larger community through Story Stitchers. Through collaboration with adult artists, youth find that their voices are elevated and they feel heard. And that is why they want to write more, bigger and better.

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