October 21, 2019

Using art’s power to help young people create a sense of hope and belonging

Louisville artists use creative expression to help young people, especially LGBTQ+ teens, hold space and feel seen.

As a Black lesbian/queer woman, artist Talesha "Tala" Wilson can relate to the young people she mentors at Louisville Youth Group, a local nonprofit that helps create safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth and allies. Photos by Josh Miller/IDEAS xLab

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This story is from a series of essays written by artists and participants in Our Emotional Wellbeing, an initiative from the Louisville nonprofit IDEAS xLab. The two-year program invites artists to collaborate with young people ages 12-20 with the aim of harnessing art’s power to create inclusive communities where everyone can be their authentic selves. Read all the stories in the series here.

“Reflect on a time you felt invisible.”

That’s what we asked the young people of Louisville Youth Group, all LGBTQ+ and allied young people under the age of 21, during one of our first Our Emotional Wellbeing activities.

“What did that invisibility feel like for you?” we asked. The young people wrote and shared their responses before selecting an object in the room to pose with to bring attention—visibility—to that item. It was very surprising to see how creative students got with their choices and how comfortable they looked doing what felt natural to them. Centering the focus on a microwave by posing dramatically on top of it, holding a floor lamp over their head as a demonstration of strength. This stirred some much-needed conversations about how visibility makes us feel and the ways that we can increase it.

We experienced how powerful this was when, during social sharing time, a student said, “It feels good to be able to find someone who shares the same views that I do.” The experience revealed how these different forms of artistic and creative expression can support finding commonality among your peers and social groups.

As two artists based in Louisville, Kentucky, we collaborate to bring together our artistic renaissance of self-awareness, individual and collective empowerment, diversity and inclusion, and community engagement with poetry, writing, and advocacy. This work can take many forms, from creating educational videos on applying makeup, modeling in a photo shoot, providing educational workshops on positive sexuality, facilitating community conversations on the intersectionality of gender, race, class, and sexuality, leading poetry and writing workshops, and teaching resilience.

Louisville artists Talesha “Tala” Wilson (left) and Jasemine “Jazzy J” Reed are artists-in-residence at IDEAS xLab.

Through our collaborative partnership with Louisville Youth Group, as part of IDEAS xLab’s Our Emotional Wellbeing program, we are reminded that barriers and social constructs continue to stifle young people’s sense of empowerment and acceptance. That is why we are both so excited and grateful for this opportunity to work with these children and young adults to illustrate the ways in which co-creating art can positively impact their sense of belonging and their hope for the future.

During one such collaboration, Jazzy J read a poem by Nicole Sealey titled “Legendary,” which is inspired by Pepper Labeija, a well-decorated transgendered woman and pioneer of ballroom culture in New York City. Following the reading, we discussed the mood of the writer. Students were fully engaged offering suggestions that the narrator in the poem is “confident,” and “proud.”

Working with LYG reveals just how powerful and important it is to create safe spaces for young people to come together and present fully as themselves.

As a Black lesbian/queer woman, Tala relates to some of the experiences of the youth at LYG as it pertains to acceptance by society for our sexuality, gender, and class. One of the participants noted during a discussion about what we do when others do things to us we do not like: “I went shopping with my mother and she insisted that I buy clothes from the men’s section, but I wanted to get my school clothes from the women’s section and she wouldn’t let me.” They went on to explain how they felt unheard and felt invisible. Although unable to relate specifically to that scenario, Tala has felt voiceless as it pertains to people taking her lesbianism seriously and was able to offer suggestions on how to handle that situation if it happens again. It’s times like those that remind us why this work is essential for not only the young people’s growth, but ours as well.

We understand that many members of LYG navigate barriers and social constructs that are not inclusive or representative of their community. This is exactly why our team from IDEAS xLab is collaborating with LYG on the Our Emotional Wellbeing project. Over the next several months, we will create multiple arts-based programs that will include creative writing, artistic development and expression, positive self-coping skills, open discussion, and critical thinking and youth leadership. Our ultimate goal is for the young people of LYG to feel an increased sense of hope and belonging, so they can navigate the world with confidence, embrace the shadows, and continually find alternative solutions.

Jasemine "Jazzy J" Reed and Talesha "Tala" Wilson


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