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Malika Whitley: How the arts help homeless youth heal and build

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Malika Whitley is the founder of ChopArt, an organization for homeless teens focused on mentorship, dignity and opportunity through the arts. In this moving, personal talk, she shares her story of homelessness and finding her voice through arts -- and her mission to provide a creative outlet for others who have been pushed to the margins of society.

- Arts curator, activist
Malika Whitley is an arts curator and activist in Atlanta, Georgia. Full bio

Don't you love a good nap?
00:12
(Laughter)
00:14
Just stealing away
that small block of time
00:16
to curl up on your couch
for that sweet moment of escape.
00:20
It's one of my favorite things,
00:23
but something I took for granted
00:25
before I began experiencing
homelessness as a teenager.
00:26
The ability to take a nap is only reserved
for stability and sureness,
00:31
something you can't find
00:36
when you're carrying
everything you own in your book bag
00:37
and carefully counting the amount of time
you're allowed to sit in any given place
00:40
before being asked to leave.
00:45
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia,
00:48
bouncing from house to house
00:50
with a loving, close-knit family
00:51
as we struggled to find stability
00:54
in our finances.
00:57
But when my mom temporarily
lost herself to mania
01:00
and when that mania chose me
as its primary scapegoat
01:04
through both emotional and physical abuse,
01:07
I fled for my safety.
01:10
I had come to the conclusion
that homelessness was safer for me
01:13
than being at home.
01:17
I was 16.
01:19
During my homelessness,
I joined Atlanta's 3,300 homeless youth
01:22
in feeling uncared for,
01:26
left out and invisible each night.
01:28
There wasn't and still is not any place
01:32
for a homeless minor
to walk off the street
01:34
to access a bed.
01:36
I realized that most people
thought of homelessness
01:39
as some kind of lazy, drug-induced
squalor and inconvenience,
01:41
but that didn't represent my book bag
full of clothes and schoolbooks,
01:47
or my A+ grade point average.
01:50
I would sit on my favorite bench downtown
01:54
and watch as the hours passed by
01:57
until I could sneak in
a few hours of sleep
01:58
on couches, in cars,
02:02
in buildings or in storage units.
02:05
I, like thousands of other homeless youth,
disappeared into the shadows of the city
02:08
while the whole world kept spinning
02:13
as if nothing at all
had gone terribly wrong.
02:15
The invisibility alone
almost completely broke my spirit.
02:19
But when I had nothing else,
I had the arts,
02:25
something that didn't demand
02:29
material wealth from me
in exchange for refuge.
02:30
A few hours of singing, writing poetry
02:33
or saving up enough money
02:37
to disappear into another world at a play
02:39
kept me going and jolting me back to life
when I felt at my lowest.
02:42
I would go to church services
on Wednesday evenings
02:47
and, desperate for the relief
the arts gave me,
02:50
I would go a few hours early,
02:53
slip downstairs
02:56
and into a part of the world
where the only thing that mattered
02:58
was whether or not I could hit
the right note in the song
03:01
I was perfecting that week.
03:04
I would sing for hours.
03:06
It gave me so much strength
to give myself permission
03:09
to just block it all out and sing.
03:12
Five years later,
I started my organization, ChopArt,
03:17
which is a multidisciplinary
arts organization for homeless minors.
03:21
ChopArt uses the arts
as a tool for trauma recovery
03:26
by taking what we know
about building community
03:30
and restoring dignity
03:33
and applying that to the creative process.
03:35
ChopArt is headquartered
in Atlanta, Georgia,
03:38
with additional programs
in Hyderabad, India, and Accra, Ghana,
03:41
and since our start in 2010,
03:45
we've served over 40,000 teens worldwide.
03:47
Our teens take refuge
03:51
in the transformative
elements of the arts,
03:53
and they depend on the safe space
ChopArt provides for them to do that.
03:56
An often invisible population
uses the arts to step into their light,
04:01
but that journey out of invisibility
is not an easy one.
04:07
We have a sibling pair, Jeremy and Kelly,
04:11
who have been with our program
for over three years.
04:15
They come to the ChopArt classes
every Wednesday evening.
04:18
But about a year ago,
04:23
Jeremy and Kelly witnessed their mom
seize and die right in front of them.
04:25
They watched as the paramedics
failed to revive her.
04:30
They cried as their father
04:34
signed over temporary custody
to their ChopArt mentor, Erin,
04:36
without even allowing them to take
an extra pair of clothes on their way out.
04:40
This series of events broke my heart,
04:45
but Jeremy and Kelly's faith
and resolve in ChopArt
04:49
is what keeps me grounded in this work.
04:52
Kelly calling Erin in her lowest moment,
04:56
knowing that Erin would do
whatever she could
04:58
to make them feel loved and cared for,
05:00
is proof to me that by using
the arts as the entry point,
05:03
we can heal and build
our homeless youth population.
05:09
And we continue to build.
05:13
We build with Devin,
05:15
who became homeless with his family
05:17
when his mom had to choose
between medical bills or the rent.
05:19
He discovered his love
of painting through ChopArt.
05:24
We build with Liz,
05:27
who has been on the streets
most of her teenage years
05:29
but turns to music to return to herself
05:32
when her traumas feel too heavy
for her young shoulders.
05:35
We build for Maria,
05:40
who uses poetry to heal
05:42
after her grandfather died in the van
05:44
she's living in
with the rest of her family.
05:47
And so to the youth out there
experiencing homelessness,
05:50
let me tell you,
05:56
you have the power to build within you.
05:58
You have a voice through the arts
06:02
that doesn't judge
what you've been through.
06:03
So never stop fighting
to stand in your light
06:06
because even in your darkest times,
06:09
we see you.
06:12
Thank you.
06:14
(Applause)
06:15

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About the speaker:

Malika Whitley - Arts curator, activist
Malika Whitley is an arts curator and activist in Atlanta, Georgia.

Why you should listen

At age 6, Malika Whitley began to experience homelessness with her family, then on her own at 16. During her homelessness, she found the arts as a tool for resistance from fully succumbing to the hardships of youth homelessness. After her experience, Whitley founded ChopArt, which is a multidisciplinary arts organization for homeless middle and high schoolers. Her work has been internationally recognized, as well as highlighted in Atlanta's local media. Most notably, Whitley has been named in Creative Loafing's "20 People to Watch", and ChopArt has been featured in Atlanta Magazine and on WSBTV. To support ChopArt's teens, please consider sponsoring a full year of programming for a homeless teen here.

More profile about the speaker
Malika Whitley | Speaker | TED.com