Resiliency in Rhythm

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.