This theater company creates a safe space and a creative outlet for incarcerated youth
Renewal Awards finalist Drama Club aims to support and mentor kids who are navigating New York City's juvenile justice system
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
Drama Club has been teaching theater skills and mentoring youth in New York City’s juvenile justice system for five years. The nonprofit provides a safe environment where some of the city’s most vulnerable kid—kids who’ve experienced violence and childhood trauma—can express themselves and unleash their voice.
Founder and Executive Director Josie Whittlesey says Drama Club is also grooming its community’s future leaders. She even hopes to see one of them at the helm of her organization one day. “Someday we are going to be able to pass along the leadership of Drama Club to the young people we have nurtured,” she told The Renewal Project. Whittlesey also discussed Drama Club’s future plans to expand its programs to reach kids after they are released from detention, and what inspired her to start the theater company in the first place. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Learn more about Drama Club on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @DramaClubNYC.
Tell us about the projects Drama Club is currently working on.
We feel a real urgency to add community-based programming for the kids when they come home, because a continuum of programming is something that is very much missing in the New York City justice system at the moment. We want to have a home base where the kids can have access to mentors, get connected to services they need, and have a safe space where they can be a part of a thriving theater that will give back to their community. Our goal this year is moving forward with community relationships and fundraising so that this can become a reality as soon as possible. We are looking at the Bronx (where the largest percentage of kids arrested in NYC come from) as our headquarters. Coming home is difficult and a lot of the youth are coming back to extremely challenging circumstances. We want to be there for them, in their community, so there is at least one safe place where they can catch their breath and feel part of something that’s theirs.
We are also starting to raise up natural leadership from within. It is our goal that Drama Club will become a national network of youth-led programs. And we need a home base to start to make this happen.
Tell us about the Drama Club community.
The young people we work with are overwhelmingly youth of color (96 percent) and almost entirely from communities dealing with poverty—they almost all come from the same seven zip codes. Many of them are navigating through serious trauma—on top of the trauma of being incarcerated. In NYC someone as young as 7 years old can be arrested. So we say we work with youth ages 7-21, but the majority of the youth we work with are 13-17.
How did you start your community work?
I started volunteering in high school. I visited a nursing home near my school. I was assigned to this awesome old lady who never remembered me week to week but was always happy to see me. We had great conversations and shared a love of licorice. I brought her black licorice every week and every week she would say to me, “Most people don’t know this but licorice keeps you regular!”
What inspired you to do this work?
In 2011 I started teaching theater at Sing Sing, a maximum security men’s prison about 30 miles north of the city. At that time I was a professional actor and college acting professor. Working in prison was a life-changing experience. I was warned about the racial disparity in prison but the reality of that is mind-blowing. It turned my idea of what I thought prison was upside down. As I got to know the men, I heard stories over and over again about poverty, violence, and a profound lack of resources. It opened a door in my life I will never be able to close again. When they got to know me they saw that I was willing to try and do something about mass incarceration and it’s deeply destructive and cyclical nature. Working with kids who were starting to get involved with the criminal justice system was what we decided would be most impactful. The rest is history.
I believe the most impactful thing we are doing at Drama Club is raising up youth leaders.
How is Drama Club helping its members thrive?
I believe the most impactful thing we are doing at Drama Club is raising up youth leaders. I am deeply inspired by the natural leadership and problem solving skills that the kids we work with possess. Someday we are going to be able to pass along the leadership of Drama Club to the young people we have nurtured. It is the North Star of our work and I believe it will be profoundly transformational for the individuals and their communities and help end youth incarceration altogether.
What do you love about your community?
I love the kids. They are extraordinary. Knowing what they are up against on a daily basis both during and post-incarceration is unbelievable. Watching them navigate trauma, constant violence in their environments, and a profound lack of resources, with grace and a sense of humor—it’s just extraordinary. I am privileged to know them and get to work alongside them.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
These kids have been through multiple and complex traumas. They have dealt with things at a very young age that hopefully most people will never have to. Many of them were never given the space to be a kid. But they have aspirations and desires like any other young person. They want to play and laugh and experience joy. And they deserve that.
What leaders inspire you?
Bryan Stevenson for his extraordinary work with people on death row and children given life without parole, and for being a powerful advocate for the most forgotten people in our country. Daisaku Ikeda, the Buddhist philosopher, for his absolute believe that every single person has unlimited potential.