Awakening Opportunity through the Gift of Creativity

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Awakening Opportunity through the Gift of Creativity

Cali Noland

Executive Director, Griot Arts

While growing up, I never entertained the idea of remaining in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I was going to get out and make a difference elsewhere – in a big city or, perhaps, even abroad. And, I was going to do so by tapping into the arts. I'd always felt the therapeutic power of immersing yourself in the arts, so the idea of using it to reach out to and connect with people in need was what motivated me. 

As I ventured out, the more I realized the greatest opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives wasn’t halfway around the world. It was in my own back yard, right here in Clarksdale. There are a lot of kids here who have experienced such traumatic incidents in their lives that they start to believe nothing good can happen to them. For some, it’s physical abuse. For others, it’s gangs, emotional instability, or the absence of a parent or role model.

Whatever the case, these kids need a reason for hope. So, armed with what I’d learned from an internship in New York and a Google search on how to start a nonprofit, I created Griot Arts. The whole idea was to tap into the rich history in the arts here in Clarksdale to build relationships, confidence and a sense of possibility. When you awaken the gift of creativity inside someone, they realize they have the power to create the world around them.

Four years later, and with the support of organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, Griot has grown from 12 students to 45. There’s absolutely nothing more rewarding than seeing each one of them grow. I get chills watching Justin Zamm, who came to the Delta region as part of the Teach For America program, engage students in our Rock Band offering. He makes the most amazing music with the kids, and it’s because of the relationships he builds with them. 

In addition to providing academic support to students through tutoring, we tap working artists like Justin to expose fourth graders through high schoolers to alternate forms of artistic expression as part of our after-school and summer programming. That’s where I believe we separate ourselves from the crowd. Offerings range from the visual arts, theater and choral, to instrumental music, various forms of dance and more.

There’s a healing quality to picking up a guitar or writing a poem when you're having a difficult time in life. When you add the power of relationships on top of that, the doors to possibility begin to open. But patience is key, because many of these kids are so scarred that it often takes them more than a year just to open up and trust the people around them. A lot of times, they come in looking for a safe place to hang out. When they finally get to the point where they can love and feel secure, they begin to explore and put themselves out there. They take control of shaping the world around them.

A lot of our kids who have graduated high school have gone on to college because they see an opportunity to do more with their lives. Many of them even come back to Griot to intern or help out wherever they can. And it's because this is where the light went on. They know the relationships they built here are forever. That’s what they get, even if they didn't know they were looking for it.

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