The Wells Graduate Fellowship is the most prestigious annual award given by the Indiana University Graduate School. It goes to a doctoral or masters student who demonstrates the qualities of Chancellor Wells; according to the committee puts it, “leadership abilities, academic excellence, character, social consciousness and generosity of spirit.” This year, it was awarded to an MFA student in creative writing, Ming Holden, whose work doing theater projects with a group of young Congolese refugees in Kenya, a group she calls The Survival Girls, is part of a larger global movement toward teaching creativity in the developing world.
The Vulnerable Demographic
Ming Holden: The Survival Girls grew out of my doing what I think is important for a lot of development workers to be able to do, which is show up, be quiet, listen, and then develop a project based on a community’s needs. So I showed up in Kenya knowing that I wanted to spend seven weeks working with young women refugees. I knew that what I wanted to do was to work with the more vulnerable demographic, and I don’t think it gets more vulnerable than young, female, orphaned, [and] refugee, in Africa. Those five things? You’re at the bottom of the bottom. You’re the first to go, you’re the first to be harmed, you’re the first to be abandoned.
Rachel Lyon: If you’re going to help youth through traumatic times in order to allow them to effect change in their societies, you need to start at this safe place; at the same time if you’re going to make really wonderful art, you have to feel safe. Is that simply the connection or is more causal than that?
MH: It’s an interesting Venn diagram. A lot of the conversation around development, it has to do with entrepreneurship, it has to do with economics, international relations. These are not things I studied, right? I studied the creative arts. But it doesn’t matter whether kids are going to end up being artists in the long run. What it does for them and their minds and bodies to have the safe space and create art with each other to address and expose social justice issues that have affected them, you know you’re not going to have economists in 20 years unless these kids do this now.
From Art To Community
Sir Ken Robinson put it best, I think, in his 2006 TED talk—which has gone viral; I think it’s like over 9 million views at this point:
In the next thirty years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history….
His point is so well taken, I think, by the world at large: We do not know what the century holds. We can’t know, because it’s never been younger and more urban. We don’t know what’s going to happen. So what we need to encourage in ourselves, and encourage in the young people who are going to inherit and fashion the future, is innovation, is a capacity to be creative.
…And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are.
One of the most touching moments I had with them when I went back and worked again with them in December was asking them all to draw their ideal future. A lot of trauma recovery has to do simply with replacing bad thoughts and self-hatred thoughts—‘cause there’s a lot of self-blame that goes along with being a trauma victim—with, ‘I can do this, I am wonderful, this is what I’m dreaming.” Five of the six girls present that day drew community centers, and wrote, ‘I know I just need to go to school, and then I can be a counselor, and then I can be a community organizer.’
What do we know about young people? They’re not necessarily as wise as they are intuitive. But listening to that intuition, and just allowing them to pursue that intuition, I think needs to be a cornerstone of how we look at these policies moving forward.
RL: Ming’s essay about the Survival Girls will be featured alongside work by Bill Gates, NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis, and other authors, in an upcoming publication put out by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The publication will be the foundation for USAID’s Frontiers in Development conference, which will be held in June. For more information about Ming’s work, you can visit her Web site, www.mingholden.com.