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Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heartby Nina Simons
To Walk in Beauty
I am the artistic director of a nonprofit arts education and violence prevention organization called Destiny Arts Center, based in Oakland, California. Our mission is to end isolation, prejudice, and violence in the lives of young people. Every single day we just show up with our hearts as open as possible. We teach violence prevention by serving youth ages three to eighteen in after-school, weekend, and summer programs featuring dance, martial arts, theater, self-defense, conflict resolution, and leadership.
We’re located in a small community center in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Here we intentionally limit the number of youth to 150, so that we can remain true to our commitment to serve them at a deep level in a place that feels like home. In order to serve larger numbers we send our instructors out into twenty-five public preschool, elementary, middle, and high schools each year. And our performance groups perform for up to 25,000 audience members annually.
It takes a whole lot of time, a whole lot of love, a whole lot of spirit and patience for young people to recognize that they have the power to make change. We, as their role models, have the responsibility to show them that we understand our own power to make change so that they see it’s possible.
I have to tell you a story. I did a theater exercise where I asked a group of young people to get into a circle. It’s called the emotion game in which we play with or create emotions in increasing intensity, from one to ten, ten being huge. So the first emotion I gave them was fear. I said let’s experience fear. I said, picture something that you’re really afraid of in the middle of the circle. I counted from one to ten and by the time I got to ten they were trembling and contorting their bodies in terror. It was palpable. Then we did anger. Again, their bodies were really into it. One, two, three . . . I slowly counted all the way to ten and their faces and bodies were gripped and clenched in anger.
Then I said, okay, let’s try bliss. Who knows what that is? Somebody defined it as extreme happiness. I said, that’s good enough. I started the counting, one, two, three--and nothing happened. They just stood there giggling, and telling me it was stupid. They couldn’t do it. I said: Okay, wait. You mean to tell me that you can feel and express fear and anger but not bliss? What are we here for then? Do you want to change the world? Start right here. Experience bliss. I dare you.
I admit it, this was a dare to myself. I was praying at the same time. Lord, they already think I’m crazy. And now I’m taking them to bliss? Then I prayed, and I centered myself. I recognized that I had recently been in this space of noticing how terrifying it is to want something and then ask and expect to get it. It’s subtle, this releasing the fear of scarcity, which is a story so safe it’s habitual. My task is to allow the fear to exist but to step past it, and choose something different from fear in each interaction.
I want my students to be removed from the terror of wanting something different, to know that they belong on the planet, that they belong in their bodies, that they’re here as precious beings for a purpose, to connect with other beings and to remove the illusion of separation between us all. I want them to know that it requires incredible discipline and perseverance and imagination to create change.
So here I was in a circle of teenagers daring them to experience, just for a few moments, something other than the fear, anger, and disempowerment they feel over and over again in their lives. I was asking them to be bold, to be true revolutionaries. I said to them: Let us be willing to be in bliss, because if we can’t do that, what are we creating? What are we dreaming up for this world? It takes courage to be in this place of joy and bliss together--maybe more than fear or anger. I could feel the group resonate with what I was saying.
We all held hands and we looked at each other, and I asked: Are you with me? Can you make the commitment to be in bliss with me right now? Everybody was nodding. Their expressions were determined. So I counted, one, two, three, four . . . Their bodies softened. Their expressions sweetened. Their defenses dropped. By the time I got to ten, every single kid in that circle was weeping with pure joy and amazement. They were weeping because they saw each other’s beauty and felt their own.
Afterward, we sat and we debriefed. One girl, choking through her tears, asked: If we could just see each other from this place all the time, who would we be, what would this world be like?
What happens when we create this space for young people? What happens when we witness and testify to their fear, anger, and hopelessness and then model for them complete recognition that we can also choose bliss, that we have the ability to see beauty in one another? Giving them that opportunity lights up their hidden spaces and lets them make bold strokes on life’s paper.
Sarah Crowell is the artistic director at Destiny Arts Center (www.destinyarts.org), an arts education/violence prevention center for youth based in Oakland, California. Sarah is the recipient of the 2007 KPFA peace award and the 2006 Purple Moon DreamSpeakers award. She has performed both nationally and internationally with modern, jazz, and dance/theater companies in Boston and the Bay Area since 1984.
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