By Janna M Hall
There’s no denying that when it comes to our inner city youth, the odds have been stacked against them for quite some time. Many families live in poverty, with parents constantly away from home, working multiple jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table. Not coincidentally, the schools in those same districts are severely underfunded and understaffed, and our children often graduate lacking the basic knowledge needed to truly succeed in both higher education and life. With the lack of proper education comes struggles finding good-paying jobs, only perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It’s no surprise that for many youth, turning to a life of crime seems like the only way to make a living, honest or not. For them, it’s all about survival, and they’re willing to risk everything in order to provide for themselves and those they love. Whether for violent or non-violent offenses, our youth make up the majority of the incarcerated population, and our younger boys and girls are faced with criminal records that continue to haunt them through adulthood.
How can we break this cycle? What will it take for our youth who see poverty, crime, and incarceration as the norm, to channel their energy into something positive, something that creates real change?
For Richmond native Jamil Jasey, he believes the arts is the answer. Growing up in Richmond’s inner city in the 1980s and graduating from George Wythe High School in the late 90s, Jasey has seen the aforementioned cycle perpetuate far too many times. He’s witnessed first-hand peers who’d involved themselves in the lifestyle he knew he needed to avoid, and thanks to his solid foundation, he found an outlet. His involvement in the arts began in 1997, and today, he’s the proud Founder of Divine Souls Coalition, an organization whose mission is to use the arts to combat violence in our communities.
“I got my start in the arts in Richmond Public Schools in 1997,” he recalls. “Mrs. Lewis, my English teacher, convinced me to take up poetry during my 11th grade year after reading my writing. At first I said, ‘oh no, that’s not my thing’, but I eventually joined the Forensics team. I was in the prose and poetry division, so I had to memorize a poem, perform it, and act it out. That really helped when I started performing.”
Thankfully for Jasey, his newfound love of poetry and performing garnered the support from his family and friends, friends who saw his potential and refused to let him follow in their footsteps. What started out as high school Forensics competitions led to a long career in the arts. After trying his hand at a few performance groups with fellow artist friends, he went on to start Divine Souls Coalition.
Comprised of 11 members—six singers, four poets, and one comedian—Divine Souls Coalition brings the arts into communities who might never otherwise be exposed to them. From soul to pop to blues, the members perform both original and cover songs on stages across Richmond.
“We try to do an event the first Saturday of each month,” he says. “It’s open to all artists—poets, singers, dancers, visual artists—we support all types of art, and want the community to see that there’s more than one outlet out here. At our monthly events, we usually end up having 16 artists perform, and then for the finale we all perform together.”
While his outreach events are meant to attract all community members regardless of age, Jasey spends a great deal of his time reaching youth through his partnership with the Richmond Public Library’s Black Male Emergent Leaders (BMER) program. With BMER, students from ages 12-18 who the school system considers to be “at-risk” are given the opportunity to gain mentorship, build positive relationships, and get in-depth exposure to the arts in a way they’d never had before. Jasey’s specific focus is on performance art—writing and performing poetry—while other members teach hip-hop, acting, and a myriad of other art forms. His involvement affords him an opportunity to bond and connect with the inner city youth and impart wisdom that he knows will help them choose the right path.
Working with 12 students, Jasey focuses on showing them how far they’ve come from the very first day they arrived. They reflect on their progress at the end of the eight-week program, and they’re able to actually see for themselves how much they’ve changed. He admits that in the beginning, some youth don’t always get along, but he takes pride in the fact that by the end of the program, he’s created an environment in which they can learn, grow, and develop friendships.
“I stress that at the end of the day, the group has to be one. One cohesive unit. In the beginning, I’d hear a lot of members carrying the ‘oh, I don’t care about you’ attitude, but now they encourage each other and have really established a family unit. We’re a team.”
It is his hope that Divine Souls Coalition may be able to teach their own classes one day. With the mission of using the arts to combat violence combined with his unique connection to inner city youth, Jasey plans to make his organization more family oriented, providing a place where families can bring their children and they can bond, learn the arts, and explore their own talents and passions together—again, as a unit.
Most recent on their list of local events was their biggest yet, their Unity Walk in Monroe Park on September 24, something they plan to make an annual event.
“We’ve done a lot of shows together, but our first community event is our Unity Concert. We’re bringing together members from city council and the school board, and it’s all about using the arts to give back. We want to feed the homeless and donate clothes. Growing up, VCU wasn’t as big as it is now. Having this event in Monroe Park will bring everyone together; that’s why we call it the ‘Unity Concert’.”
For an organization that’s yet to reach its full official year, Divine Souls Coalition has already made its mark on Richmond city. Last year, they hosted an event in Mosby Court that drew in unforeseen numbers. Even in 53-degree weather, a whopping 175 people congregated at the basketball court on Redd Street and enjoyed performances of all kinds. The city council, police department, and various organizations in Richmond all pitched in to be a part of the event, and through their collaborative effort, were able to bring the neighbors together for three hours despite the cold. Only anticipating 50 people, residents watched performances from their windows for lack of seating. Even those without chairs fellowshipped with other residents and vowed to stay in contact with Divine Souls Coalition as they make their way through the Richmond area.
As for plans to expand, Jasey’s looking forward to bringing his showcases to other areas in Richmond. He’s working with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to host events in 2017, and has his eyes on spaces in the Hillside, Fairfield, and Whitcomb Court communities. When asked if he’d ever imagined that he’d be making such incredible strides to make a difference in Richmond, he says absolutely not.
“To be honest, I’d never thought I’d stay in Richmond after leaving VCU,” he admits. “I moved to DC and thought I’d stay in that area forever. But things worked themselves out differently. I’m so glad I’m back and doing what I’m doing.
“The people in my life supported me because they wanted to keep me from going in that route, perpetuating that cycle. An idle mind is the Devil’s playground, so I just want to help other youth find that same outlet. If art can save me, it can save others.”
Learn about upcoming Divine Souls Coalition events, visit them at Facebook.com/DivineSoulsCoalition.
All photos submitted by: Divine Souls Coalition