Building Resiliency with the Arts

Portland's I Am MORE helps traumatized young people heal by sharing their stories

The Portland-based advocacy organization Stand For Children annually awards $16,000 Beat The Odds scholarships for students who “have overcome obstacles on their path to graduation thanks to great educators & school programs.” In November 2018, three of Portland’s four winners — out of 16 statewide —shared something in common. Each were Black teens who had survived various forms of trauma, including food insecurity, homelessness, bullying, and sexual violence. And all had been mentored by the same teacher.

But S. Renee Mitchell was more than an educator. The poet (she’s poet-in-residence for Portland’s Resonance Ensemble), youth activist, and award-winning former newspaper journalist had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students. 

Co-founders Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani 

So when three of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic mentees – Justice English, Johana Amani and Jeanette Mmunga each received a Beat The Odds scholarship, they decided to help other youth tap into their resiliency. Together, Mitchell and the four students, now all attending college, founded I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a nationally award-winning, creative-and arts-based youth development program. I Am MORE has trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that “increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging,” according to its mission statement. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Part of I Am MORE’s programming to help youth share their wisdom and creativity with adult audiences involves the arts. The organization’s 2nd Annual “Resiliency in Rhythm” showcase at this year’s 12th Annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works includes poetry and rap performances, interviews conducted by Mmunga, one of I Am MORE’s three youth co-founders, and a fascinating discussion that allowed three young Black leaders of Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests to publicly discuss – for the first time – challenges they regularly faced attended public schools and, now confronting racism as college students and within society. 

Providing young people of color with an emotionally safe space for personal storytelling about their often-challenging life experiences proved to be a critical part of their healing from trauma and creating success on their own terms. In working with them, Mitchell discovered that unlocking traumatic personal experiences, and connecting those experiences with opportunities to gain insights could help shape one’s sense of purpose. That discovery not only helped her develop wisdom that improved her own life, but also helps others empower and bring joy to others — students and adults. That need is even greater now, Mitchell noted, with the pandemic’s documented rise in youth suicide and depression rates. 

Creative Revolutionist

I Am MORE’s multifaceted combination of teaching, storytelling and other artistic expressions in order to empower and enlighten others is a product of its founding visionary’s diverse experiences. “Everything that’s happened to me in my life has funneled me toward doing this important work,” said Mitchell, who aptly describes herself as a “multi-media heARTivist” and “Creative Revolutionist.”™ Mitchell has an MBA in Marketing from Newberg’s George Fox University and expects to graduate in June with a doctoral degree from the University of Oregon. Her research for her dissertation is based on the I Am MORE program.

Best known for her decade as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist for The Oregonian, Mitchell has also published a novel, five plays, a children’s book, and three books of poetry, produced the libretto for Portland’s first jazz opera, written songs about Oregon history, raised millions of dollars in funding from successful grant applications for artists and nonprofit organizations, and authored academic journal articles about education, training, racial issues, and depression. Mitchell has also acted in plays, from Portland to Saipan, lectured around the country, facilitated workshops in professional development for artists (for the Regional Arts & Culture Council), and engaged in numerous family literacy campaigns. She’s one of the three co-founders of the annual Vanport Mosaic Festival, and the visionary behind Healing Roots, Bradley Angle’s resource program serving African and African American domestic violence survivors. 

S. Renee Mitchell

For all this and more, Mitchell has been honored by the city of Portland (Spirit of Portland Award), Multnomah County (Josiah Hill Public Health Hero), Roosevelt High School (Community Freedom Fighter), PassinArt theatre company, White Bird Dance company, and Education First/Novo Foundation (Social Emotional Learning Innovation Award), among others. Each of those achievements have served Mitchell in creating and managing I Am M.O.R.E. But beyond the impressive professional triumphs, Mitchell’s past offered another qualification not listed on her glittering resume, one that helped her connect with traumatized students on an emotional level. 

“I’d had suicidal thoughts as a teenager,” she admitted. She was also bullied and emotionally neglected at home, and overlooked, harassed and humiliated for being one of few black students during her K-12 classroom experiences. When she saw signs of sadness, shame and hunger in some of her students at Roosevelt, Mitchell said “it connected to my own experience as a young person of color. I don’t want any other kid to say life isn’t worth living.” 

Acknowledging and processing her own dark memories gave Mitchell an authenticity with her students that other well-intentioned advocates lacked. So, after Mitchell and her three youth co-founders decided to create I Am MORE, one of the first things they did was sit in a room together and share their stories of trauma. 

Just a few weeks later, they were invited to share those stories with the world at the 2019 Martin Luther King Day celebration, organized by Portland-based World Arts Foundation. A charismatic performer herself, Mitchell wanted to make telling their stories of trauma and resilience into a more theatrical presentation that could amplify their emotional power. The students’ presentations “were a life changing experience for these kids,” Mitchell recalls. “They were nervous, their voices were trembling, near tears. They not only received a standing ovation, but adults were coming up to them, saying ‘Thank you. You changed me. I heard so much of myself within your story.’” 

Months later, I Am MORE received its first invitation to perform at a national trauma-informed conference in Philadelphia and also facilitate workshops for adult educators. With the support of Portland Public Schools (PPS) and other donors, Mitchell raised enough money to take six I Am MORE youth to Philadelphia, and also New York and Washington, D.C., where they toured cities they had never been to before. Since then, there have been numerous opportunities for I Am MORE youth to present at statewide and national conferences, including leading workshops.

“We quickly realized we were on to something,” Mitchell explained. “The adults needed it to process their own trauma, and the youth needed to hear that their stories were important. The platform gives them each a voice they’ve always had but that we usually never hear. It reinforces that they matter and have wisdom to share.”

As the group received more and more invitations, they devised and performed trainings for hundreds of students and adults. I Am MORE is also the only Oregon organization that has received two national Social Emotional Learning In Action Awards from the NoVo Foundation, in partnership with Education First and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

 Empowered Resilience

I Am MORE’s philosophies of youth development are grounded in the Aboriginal phrase: “Nothing about me without me is for me.” Its programming accordingly “leverages personal storytelling with critical inquiry and reflection, mindfulness and social-emotional skill building… to help youth of color move past the emotional grip of their trauma, rise to their potential, and shift into the depth of their possibilities,” according to I Am MORE’s website. This approach benefits not only the students doing the storytelling, but also others who were hearing the stories.

Along with her own teaching experience, Mitchell incorporated other research-based and emerging educational practices, including culturally sustaining pedagogies (which combats the old paternalistic view of communities of color as broken), relational-cultural theory (which emphasizes the importance of community engagement), and more. She adds the arts integration element, which provides young people an expressive vehicle to develop their skills as inspirational storytellers, places students of color and their stories of resilience at the center of the conversation.

“We let young people lead from a position of strength rather than trauma,” Mitchell explains. “I’m most excited when I see students tap into brilliance they didn’t know they had. So, we put them in situations where it forces them to stretch, to think beyond the boxes other people have put them in. We want them to know that they are more than the worst thing that happened to them, more than they think they are.” 

This process leads to a theory of change that Mitchell created and calls Empowered Resilience™. “Once someone is centered in their power and sense of purpose, they intuitively look for ways to empower others,” says Mitchell, who was inspired by that philosophy to write I Am MORE’s anthem,  “When I am in my power, I empower.” 

One of those transformed by this self-reflective process was Mitchell herself. “I was a wounded kid who didn’t know how to tell people about it. I grieved the unexpected death of my father without having the tools to fully process it. I used to think about suicide. I believed my life didn’t matter, that I didn’t matter. Then, I lived out those beliefs as an adult, marrying someone who was emotionally and psychologically abusive, living with shame, guilt and depression. I was holding onto an emptiness that not only led to three failed marriages but also me failing, in some ways, as a parent to my own three children.”

Taking time to process how negative belief systems and her past trauma affected her current life situations and emotions helped Mitchell become a more authentic advocate for youth.

“It’s helped me heal myself,” Mitchell said. “It’s helped me make sense of my own life. Now, I have a depth of empathy that comes from the heart, from life experiences — not from reading a self-help book. I’m trying to do things for youth that no one had ever done for me.”  

Theory into Practice

I Am MORE takes its work directly to the people it serves, contracting with various schools, districts, community organizations and agencies that are already working with traumatized youth. It facilitates culturally sensitive, trauma-informed workshops and Self-Care Days for educators and empowerment workshops for youth. Its research-based tools include listening circles, restorative and mindfulness practices, and more. 

The organization quickly discovered that adults, whether educators or parents, also needed some of the same healing practices I Am MORE used with youth. “Adulthood is not a trauma free zone,” Mitchell noted. “We, as adults, don’t often have those opportunities to deal with our trauma,” which can ultimately affect the students they serve and the children they are raising.

Then, last spring’s advent of the COVID-19 virus forced a shift in how I Am MORE operated — and also made its mission even more urgent. “The pandemic has isolated young people from each other at a time when peer interaction is critical to their adolescent development and helps shapes who they’re going to become,” Mitchell said. 

She cited reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control of increased youth suicide and mental health breakdowns. “I worry about our young people who are on their own,” without help to process abuse that might be happening within the home, or the summer’s series of searing racist outrages. “With those mental health challenges, it’s even more important to give them someone to talk to, and a safe space to tell their stories. This is also why I’m so passionate about trying to grow it as fast as possible.” 

Like so many others, I Am MORE moved its programming online, and created a summer internship with the support of SummerWorks, an annual job-training partnership between Multnomah County and the city of Portland. About a dozen youth were paid minimum wage to attend online workshops which incorporated meditation and other mindfulness practices, as well as culturally relevant social and emotional learning strategies, which included reassuring rituals, music and journal writing.  The program also divided students into smaller cohorts, with both adults and other youth who had been trained to become co-facilitators of the internship. 

“The youth started to see themselves more as leaders,” Mitchell said. “It became part of the practice of teaching them how powerful they are, but with the support of adults.”

For young people who had been isolated from their peers, this virtual opportunity to connect with others their age who were having similar experiences was valuable, Mitchell added. So, at the request of the young participants, the internship was extended well past the summer into mid-December. 

I Am MORE recently received a grant from Oregon Humanities to hold additional online youth conversations with students of color across the state of Oregon. It also is a member of Oregon Community Foundation’s inaugural Oregon Black Student Success Community Network, and is offering its trainings and programming to a handful of other organizations in Bend, Corvallis and Portland, who are part of OCF’s collaborative network. 

“The pandemic has forced us to really consider how we create an environment online where students feel safe to love and create and think,” Mitchell says. “We figured out a way to do it that helps them and then encourages them to empower others.” 

Spreading Black Joy

COVID also sparked I Am MORE’s latest community effort. During the summer internship, the organization launched its intergenerational, year-long Spreading Black Joy campaign – in partnership with the Children’s Community Clinic, Brown Hope and dozens of other community organizations. The intention is to help lift the spirits of those in Portland’s Black community, which has been subjected to decades of displacement, violence and underfunded schools. 

“What has come out of this pandemic is a need for joy,” Mitchell says. “When we spread joy, we become more joyful. It fits with our theme: ‘We rise by lifting others.’ And we wanted to share what we’ve learned with the rest of the world.” 

The youth participating in the internship also helped design some of the social justice activities that were included in the campaign, including creating 200 Black Joy bags for children that were disseminated during the summer at a multi-school, food-distribution site. Most of the dozen different Spreading Black Joy’s projects use some form of creativity to combat the impact of trauma. 

“Youth get joy by being able to feel like what they bring to the table has value,” said I Am MORE youth leader Belise Nishimwe, a senior at downtown Portland’s St. Mary’s Academy. “Seeing the reactions to the projects they created is a great way for them to have a sense of confidence, to feel like they have a purpose. And often what they take from their youth, they carry on into their adulthood. So, practicing the ways to being able to receive joy or give joy is a great way to set that trend going into their adult life.” 

Some of the Spreading Black Joy campaign ideas include youth-focused activities, such as a TikTok dance video and a poetry-writing contest for Black young people around the state. With the support of other creative artists, the campaign is also distributing professionally designed greeting cards that celebrate Black joy, a 20-minute video titled “Reviving the Black Nod,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Elijah Hasan, which educates others about the call-and-response gesture that some Blacks use to honor each other’s dignity, and a photo collage project titled, “Remember Me, Remember Us, Remember Albina,” that honors at least a dozen of Portland’s Black elders. 

In March, Mitchell will be providing a Super Hero Awakening ceremony for hundreds of students at Woodlawn elementary school in NE Portland, based on her semi-autobiographical children’s book, The Awakening of Sharyn: A Shy & Brown Super Gyrl. The school children will each receive a Black Joy bag, which includes health-related information, markers and a face mask they can decorate themselves. “We want to be able to bring joy to children, but also remind them that super heroes are known for keeping other people safe. That’s why we’re encouraging them to decorate their own face mask.”

Resiliency in Rhythm

The most visible aspect of I Am MORE’s programming is creating spaces for youth of color to be showcased and publicly perform their creativity in front of adult audiences.  Giving students permission to tell their own stories instead of following someone’s script or organizational mission “creates a space for youth to speak their truth creatively,” Mitchell explains. She pointed to 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, who performed a stirring poem at President Biden’s inauguration, but also had a life paved with personal challenges, as an example of how adults can dramatically shape the trajectory of a young person when they allow them to unleash the creativity entombed inside them.

“I Am MORE, honestly, has given me a voice, a voice that I lost or didn’t recognize that I had,” said Mmunga, one of the I Am MORE youth co-founders, and the facilitator of the monthly youth conversations that were started in December. “It opened me up to a better version of myself. I’ve always been outspoken, but it’s different. It’s more like I speak because I now know who I am.”

For the past two years, one of I Am MORE’s primary youth-talent showcases has been Resiliency in Rhythm, which has strutted its young creators’ stuff at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Last year’s performance at southeast Portland cooperative workspace The Riveter showcased IAM students from elementary through college ages, including a 9-year old girl’s autographic of her self-published poetry book, a 13-year-old male ballet dancer who painted live throughout the show, and an especially moving poem performed by 15-year-old Laila Vickers, “who I would not be surprised to see named Poet Laureate one day,” wrote Broadway World’s local reviewer. 

One of the most memorable performances featured Japhety Ngabireyimana, an aspiring entrepreneur and sportswear designer, who now attends Portland State University on a full academic scholarship. During the show, he illustrated his immigrant journey through clothing. Mitchell said when she first met the shy high schooler, he never took off his hoodie, hiding his face in its shadows. But, Ngabireyimana gained confidence through the program, including his first I Am MORE performance in Philadelphia. 

“I Am MORE has given me a chance to be heard and know that my voice matters,” he said. “I am now more outgoing and confident.”

During last year’s Resiliency in Rhythm performance, Ngabireyimana took his first stride down a “runway” (decorated by play money tossed by audience members that I Am MORE provided). His shoulders were hunched over, representing years of being bullied by middle and high school students who made fun of his name, accent, and African origins. 

As the fashion continued, his clothing and posture changed, representing how he learned to take greater pride in his origins, and improved his grades and his self-esteem. By the end of his performance, he’d doffed the anonymous streetwear to reveal a hand-designed matching outfit reflecting traditional fabric patterns from his Tanzanian homeland — along with a mortar board, tassels, and a triumphant smile. 

Like so much of I Am MORE’s programming, the idea to use fashion as artistic expression came from the students themselves. Justice English, one of the I Am MORE youth co-founders, always wanted to be a model but was told she was too short to fit restrictive industry stereotypes. So, given the opportunity to share her ideas, she proposed the fashion show.

A video of Ngabireyimana’s 2020 performance highlighted this year’s Resiliency in Rhythm showcase, which, like the other Fertile Ground performances, was forced by the pandemic to record the shows in advance. Streaming through Feb. 15 on the Fertile Ground site, I Am MORE’s 45-minute video of this year’s show is also available on its YouTube channel, along with other videos of its performances. It also includes poetry by Portland hip hop artist Bonwavi, poetry by Vickers, and interviews with both artists conducted by Mmunga. The showcase also includes fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking revelations by three young activists of color, Musee Barclay, Nevaeh Bray and Oria Boyd, and how they are dealing with their encounters with systemic racism. 

“I’m 18 and I feel the stress of a 50-year-old,” said Bray, a University of Portland freshman and athlete, who led a major Black Lives Matter protest in her hometown of Corvallis last summer. “I cry at night just thinking about how much pain that not only my ancestors have had to endure, but my friends and my family.” 

Toward the end of the 45-minute long program, I Am MORE reminds us of an African village ritual, where instead of asking “How are you?” people ask “How are the children?” 

“They know that if children are safe and feeling loved, society is in a good place,” Mitchell explained. “In these performances, you can see how the children are doing. You hear it from their own voices and perspectives. Resiliency in Rhythm is more than just a performance — it’s really an exploration of their stories and the importance of youth in our society. We want to keep raising the question: ‘How are the children?’ ”

Stream I.Am.MORE’s 2021 Resiliency in Rhythm program above or here.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

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