“Combatting Poverty in Massachusetts Through Art”
CC: RaGesa Sampson
Created in partnership with RaGesa Sampson, Madison Ikeya, Stephanie Ware and Maleri Ginsberg
They say a picture can tell a thousand words. As we walked around Boston examining pieces of art, it was clear that this sentiment proved to be true. Each depiction and artist behind it is a testament to years of history and the lived experience of poverty in the city. We chose to examine these phenomena through an artistic lens to glimpse the stories of those living in and breaking free from this cycle.
The following project includes interviews with:
Michael Macdonald, bestselling author of “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie,” is a Boston native, who shared his perspective on his life, his decades of work in the social justice field in Boston as well as how writing and storytelling effectively deals with poverty related trauma.
Dr. Psyche Loui, a “a psychology and neuroscience researcher, a musician, Associate Professor of Creativity and Creative Practice at Northeastern University, and Director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory (MIND Lab). She shares her passion for the connection between cognition and creativity, as well as her perspective on how art can be healing.
Rob Gibbs, otherwise known as "ProBlak," a visual artist who has transformed the culture of Boston by making some of its streets and buildings his canvas.
Zumix, a lively community music and dance organization located in the heart of East Boston. Just a mile from Logan Airport, they are a nonprofit organization dedicated to building their community through music and creative technology. Zumix's ethos is that music is the most powerful means of developing adolescent self-identity.
Common Art is a weekly art program that takes place in a church in Back Bay. The program provides a place for people living on the streets or in shelters to express creativity and participate in a wide variety of arts.
Created by Madison Ikeya, with footage from group members
Michael Macdonald became a writer through his community organizing work, finding his voice through “agency” and using your lived experiences in a way that is helpful towards social change.
“I encourage people who have been impacted by major traumas to get engaged in working for change as a way toward personal healing as well, since there's no pill for trauma. It is the pill for trauma. And it's the thing that works,” he said. “When organizers, people who have been impacted by any social injustice, trauma, gather in circle and share stories, it's the beginning of an incredibly powerful sense of solidarity, and can lead to movements that can move mountains, I’ve found. Writing was just a way for me to go deeper.”
Michael Macdonald in Southie. Reproduced from his website with permission: http://www.michaelpatrickmacdonald.com/
Macdonald created The Rest of the Story, the only intentionally trauma-informed expressive arts project specifically for survivors in Boston, after success with two books, “All Souls” and “Easter Rising” based on his childhood in Southie. The process of penning his life story on the page helped Macdonald to connect his experiences in marginalized communities in Boston with restorative justice.
“The process of just writing every day and working with memory and getting to reclaim your memories and getting to reclaim the story that's too often controlled by other people, by the media, by the courts, by the police system was incredibly healing. Every single day of doing memoir work was extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous, and always triggering. And everyday was also the best day of my life,” he explained. “I wanted to give that experience to other people. So about 10 years ago, I created the Rest of the Story curriculum.”
The project has been used across communities in Boston, with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester, a service provider for survivors of homicide victims, and more recently in the Department of Youth Services.
A well-read copy of “All Souls” / CC: Sebastian Grace
“I write for the same reasons that I originally became a community organizer,” Macdonald said. “Therefore, the Rest of the Story has allowed me to find a way to bring those two things together. I am a writer, I'm a storyteller, but I'm rooted in community organizing, and I come from the lived experience of poverty and bloodbath, as well as the lived experience of finding ways to transform poverty and blood bath into voice and agency and a meaningful life.”
Macdonald explained the transformative power of the curriculum: “As difficult as it is having to relive your memories, it is incredibly empowering healing to be in charge of them, and to make sense of them, and to turn them into a story.”
“Expressive Arts, to me, it's everything. I'm really convinced of it. The more we go toward these kinds of remedies that are not only personally transformative, but also communally transformative, such as the use of expressive arts, which is rooted in story sharing, always when we, when we do sculpture, or music or writing or any expressive art, what we're talking about is stories. And when we share stories, we build solidarity, we build community, and we build movements toward healthy living. That's my belief.”
“I looked out over the landscape of Old Colony, the maze of red bricks looking like a trap to me now. My neighbors were just starting to stir after a quiet day. The sun was going down, and in the distance the sky turned bright orange and pink and purple. But the people I saw below, moving into another humid summer night of liquor, drug sales and fights weren’t looking up at the sky. They didn’t seem as if they wanted to see anything beyond the brick world below.”
(Chapter 6, August, “All Souls”)
Listen to the conversation with Michael Macdonald in full:
An art project focused on Martin Luther King's life and legacy in Boston's South End neighborhood / CC: Sebastian Grace
Why We Use Art to Express Ourselves
Dr. Psyche Loui
Researcher (MIND Lab), Professor, Musician
Dr. Psyche Loui has always been fascinated by the neurological processes behind creativity. Her lab studies the emotional connection that humans have to music, looking at changes in the brain when we are listening or creating.
She says, “One consistent finding across many studies is that…experiences of creative acts… activate multiple regions and networks throughout the brain. This includes auditory networks, motor networks, networks that are important for executive functions such as attention and memory, networks that are important for emotion and reward, and even networks that are normally active when we are mind-wandering and not doing any particular cognitive tasks at all.” Because of its impacts throughout the brain, the act of being creative allows the brain to feel excited, relaxed, or even healed.
Art can be healing as it serves as an outlet of expression for our experiences and emotions. Loui said, “Creative acts…can be healthy to use as a means of expression for multiple reasons: they provide diversion from one’s daily activities, they aid connection with other people and with positive emotions, and they engage cognitive and brain states that might otherwise be underutilized.”
Rob Gibbs, or "ProBlak"
“It’s the placement of where art is at. Not necessarily talking about, or highlighting poverty, but taking something that’s overlooked or misused and repurposing that area to hold a message.” - ProBlak
Rob Gibbs, otherwise known as ProBlak, is a visual artist who has transformed the culture of Boston by making some of its streets and buildings his canvas. As a Boston native, Gibbs introduction in the world of art traces back to him growing up in Roxbury during the age of revolutionary Hip-Hop. During his adolescence, Gibbs detailed how his initial influences in artistic expression sourced from his ‘brothers’, or neighborhood friends. He recalled recreating drawings from his brother Verb, and painting a wall of a vacant building in his neighborhood, only to do it all over again when the city would have maintenance workers paint over their creations.
Interested in telling stories at the intersection of culture, history, and black excellence, Gibbs found his responsibility to tell stories needed to move beyond standard societal perceptions of poverty and ideal candidates for the concept. “The reality was, you know, I might have been around all this activity that would highlight what poverty was defined as, but we’ve never owned it.” He continued,“my work doesn’t necessarily highlight the poverty, as you would say…I think it was about equalizing the messaging so that we weren’t looked at like these poor kids.”
Watch the full interview with ProBlak:
A poster of Fredrick Douglass on the side of a building on Tremont Street / CC: Sebastian Grace
Watch the full interview with Rene Dongo, head of Zumix's radio station:
Artistic expression is one of the most powerful ways to combat the conditions of poverty in Massachusetts. Outside tried and tested and often failing state programs, art of all kinds combats societal injustice in an empowering and restorative fashion out of reach for traditional modes of crime and punishment. Through our interviews we have captured how music and dancing, drawing and visual art and the written word have an immense transformative power to lift up, to give voice and to heal. More must be done to promote these methods and ensure that avenues for expression are universally available. Their impact speaks for itself. The moment is now.