Young people and artists collaborate to inspire hope and belonging in Louisville
Nonprofit IDEAS xLab harnesses art's power to create inclusive communities where everyone can be their authentic selves.
“I realized I like myself a lot more than I thought.” I heard these words from a young person after one of our first activities as part of the Our Emotional Wellbeing program. Looking down at their collage, a portrait of images and words pulled from magazines, I saw the words “beautiful” and “perfect”—a major shift from earlier when they said they hated what was in front of them.
Growing up, the arts brought hope and a sense of belonging to me. I remember how reading and painting expanded my understanding of the world, taking me on adventures with Hobbits and into Monet’s gardens. Loving photography, I lived in the darkroom developing black and white photographs in high school, and in the art room, I created mixed media collages and oil paintings.
Hope is setting goals for the future, envisioning pathways to achieve them, and identifying the resources and networks needed to reach them. And belonging is feeling connected to others as a valuable part of a team or group. From research, we know that both are important and impact our quality of life.
As a team of artists, we started IDEAS xLab over six years ago. We launched with the goal of realizing writer James Baldwin’s vision of the role of an artist: to illuminate the darkness and to “make the world a more human dwelling place.” We create partnerships and initiatives designed to leverage the power of community creativity and culture to transform lives through art. All of this is in support of a more healthy, hopeful, and just society.
We’ve seen how participation in the arts can impact young people—like the students in our Justice League, an artist-led after school program our team created focused on social justice at Meyzeek Middle School. There students saw a change from 6.3 to 9 on a 10-point-scale in their ability to advocate for themselves and for others.
Building on that experience, we designed Our Emotional Wellbeing to measurably impact hope and belonging in young people 12-20 years old through an arts-based, co-creation process. To understand the impact, we’re working with the University of Louisville’s Center for Creative Placehealing.
We partnered with Louisville Youth Group (LGBTQ+ young people under 21), and two after-school programs at Meyzeek Middle School, including Justice League and Bates Memorial Kingdom Academy, and identified Louisville-based artists. The young people at each location selected two artists to collaborate with in the coming year. Together they will design and implement arts-based activities that support youth leadership development. This includes the creation of artifacts for the Jefferson County Public Schools Backpack for Success.
Our team spent the summer working with the local artists—Jasmine “Jazzy J” Reed, Talesha Wilson, and Shawn Wade—all of whom were selected by the students. We trained them to think about cultivating hope and belonging, to impact health and justice, to design for sustainability, and to celebrate culture and identity.
The creative collaboration between the young people and artists will lead to a Youth Wellbeing Summit where they will share their experiences with leaders and peers from across the community and launch the arts-based toolkit/curriculum for schools and organizations, and for artists to replicate.
As an artist, I’ve loved seeing the thread of hope and belonging woven throughout the sessions. Showing Up 100, the collage activity I designed to introduce the students to our collaboration, engaged participants to depict what showing up 100 meant to them. The idea was to depict the person they are inside that brings them joy even if they aren’t able to show up that way right now. We talked about what happens when we have to hide or cover parts of who we are and the impact that showing up fully can have on others. It can enhance our ability to innovate, think creatively, to lead, and feel authentically connected.
Using my collage as an example, I described how—as a gay man—I started wearing makeup my senior year of high school. It wasn’t until the past few years, that I grew my hair out, and found the courage to consistently wear more androgynous clothing in my professional life. Stepping into the discomfort that showing up fully meant I was increasingly misgendered—which is when someone uses a word, especially a pronoun (he / she / they) or form of address (Sir / Ma’am) that does not correctly reflect the gender with which someone identifies.
I shared with the young people the words of my teammate and poet, Hannah Drake, who continues to remind us why showing up 100 is important. She says, “Someone is waiting for you to be all you can be, so that they can be all they are destined to be.” That’s something we want the young people to take away from Our Emotional Wellbeing—that they have the power to authentically step into their destiny and as Baldwin said, “make the world a more human dwelling place” for us all.
Our Emotional Wellbeing is made possible by support from Sutherland Foundation, Brown-Forman, the Kentucky Civic Engagement Table and an Arts Fund Grant from Louisville Metro Government.
He is an artist with a background in entrepreneurship, art and business administration, and editorial production. He explores the world through photography (and a lot of running), documenting his journey through joshmiller.ventures. In addition to his outdoor explorations, Josh celebrates the brilliance and strength of LGBTQ+ and Black communities through photography and collaborative storytelling.
Josh was selected for Louisville Business First's Forty under 40, and is a distance runner, a TEDx speaker, an advisor for the Derby Diversity & Business Summit, and founding Board Member of Civitas: Regional LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce headquartered in Louisville.