Ashoka Fellow Stephen Leafloor is creating young leaders among First Nations and Inuit communities affected by issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, depression, family violence and school desertion. Using a blend of hip-hop dance and music and traditional Inuit performance arts as a hook, he guides youth and other community members to create comprehensive networks of support and solutions to these mental health crises.
The Calgary Young Offenders Center (CYOC) is a maximum security facility. Kids—most of them 16 or 17, and some as young as 14--are here for committing crimes like theft, murder, or extreme acts of violence. Many First Nations youth are here, and their personal stories often revolve around not just one bad turn of events, but on many, many instances of complex trauma in their lives. Each instance of trauma caused them to become more entrenched in angry aggressive behavior, and less trustful of any other human being.
I know these kids, because I was one of them.
I didn't commit murder, but at age 15, I was breaking and entering into homes—a product of the hurt I felt inside. Then I found dance. It brought back a sense of control in my life, and resurrected my self-confidence. I'm 55 now and never had a dance lesson in my life, but to this day, when I'm in the zone, my dancing continues to cathartically help me manage my anger. I’ve been able to heal from all the past insecurities in my life and the extreme bullying I experienced.
It sounds like a slogan, but Hip hop really did save my life.
Recently, I assembled my most experienced team at Blueprint for Life to work with about 70 youth at CYOC. The plan was to engage with the youth, many of whom had been involved in gangs, through B-boying (Hip hop’s original dance, often called breakdancing). We had already completed approximately 80 outreach programs in Canada's far north in over 50 communities, but stepping into the common room of CYOC felt different.
The youth immediately sized us up, feeling out whether or not we were legit and deserved any street cred in their eyes. In this environment, no one could show even a moment of weakness or vulnerability, let alone compassion or empathy to anyone else. The tension in the air felt so thick. You could have cut it with a knife.
So what did we do? We started that first Monday morning with what we knew best—the love of dance and full physical expression through music. We created a New York style cypher (a circle where dancers take turns at the center) and got down to some heavy James Brown beats. Nothing choreographed—just free-styling from the heart.
Now, you have to understand that my team mates are true Hip hop heads and are considered some of Canada’s top street dancers. But more importantly, when they dance, a sense of honesty and emotion radiates through them as they share in the cypher. That day, the youth at CYOC looked deeply into our eyes and connected with the realness of why we were there. I saw the playfulness of youth come back to the kids – something many of them hadn't felt safe enough to explore for many years.
Why is Hip hop so powerful?
In my opinion, music is a great equalizer and immediately has the power to shift one’s headspace into the present. The stressors of the past fall away. The aggressively athletic nature of what we do releases negativity--in creative ways where no one gets hurt. Much of the magic also comes from the relationships we build through music and dance, and the positive energy that my team brings.
Over the course of an intense five days, my team shared with the youth their own stories of gang involvement and struggle. In the mental health field, acknowledging and speaking one’s personal story is well known to be one of the most powerful steps on the journey toward self healing. Through group discussions, the youth continued to connect with my team, one another, and their own selves on an even deeper level. They opened up in deep discussions about difficult topics like sexual abuse, violence, and addictions.
The five-day session was intense, because it demanded creativity. By pushing the youth hard physically, we were also encouraging them to understand their bodies and learn how to take care of themselves with lots of stretching, all while they learned new dance skills. By developing simple choreographies for a big battle for the final night’s showcase, they learned how to work together and cooperate in small groups. Through this process, they were also making new friends and discarding the old gang alliances. This unique combination of intensive physical activity and relationship-building opened the pathways to some of the deepest conversations these youth say they have ever had.
The discovery of self identity was an important part of our week, and we explored traditional culture with the guidance of First Nations Elders by smudging with prayers in the mornings, learning traditional drumming, sharing a round dance, and chanting traditional songs. In these sessions, we encouraged the youth to celebrate their differences and cultural histories, and to learn to see one another not as enemies, inmates, or dysfunctional youth, but as human beings first.
We also used a variety of meditation and visualization techniques, along with the writing of spoken word and raps. The youth created a large graffiti mural entirely based on what they wanted to say.
We saw transformations in just one week. The tough, tightly wound gang youths disappeared and the scared, vulnerable kids resurfaced—but with a sense that they were all in this place together, and with more in common than not. There were many moments of laughter, creativity, and spontaneity—moments that never happened before in a place like this.
I've been a social worker for over 30 years and have seen a lot of things in my life. But every time I do a youth correctional facility project--every night, when I’m back at the hotel and reflect on the deepness of what took place that day, I can only shake my head. It’s truly magical.
I wish I could bring all of you reading this to see the final showcase and dance battle that the youth performed for their parents and probation officers on the last night. To put the showcase in context, facilities like CYOC had never before attempted such a large public gathering, due to security concerns. If you had been there, you would have seen parents openly weeping, amazed, and proud of their kids. You would have noticed the guards and programing staff at the facility equally amazed at the transformations they have seen.
I joke that they come for the Hip hop, but they stay for the healing.
The proof in in the pudding, as they say. News of our work has continue to spread, and I'm proud to announce that we have just been awarded $500,000.00 by Justice Canada to spread such work across Canada. Other facilities in Edmonton and Winnipeg have invited us to deliver similar programing.
I should be having a mid life crisis and buying a Harley at my age, but I feel like I'm just getting started. Our work feels so real and so right. To me, mental health is everything, and we are just starting to finally recognize the healing power of dance and the arts, and how its needed more than ever today. There are no bad or evil youth—just scared kids who have experienced very complex and damaging situations for most of their lives. I believe we need to adopt a policy where no youth is left behind, and dance and the arts are powerful tools for accomplishing this goal.
To bring home this point, one of the senior staff at the Edmonton Young Offenders center recently spoke to the audience at a project we completed. She said that she could not find the words to do justice to what they had witnessed in the past week. She went on to state that in her 35 years of working in the facility, she had never seen anything as intense and as healing as what just took place.
Shouts out to all the youth who gave it their all and put themselves out there to learn new things and coming together as human beings!!!
Editor’s Note: Ashoka Fellow Stephen Leafloor, Founder of Blueprint for Life, is a Thought Leader of The Play Exchange challenge. Follow #PlayExchange on Twitter to stay updated on the wealth of ideas for healthy living emerging across Canada, and check out the Facebook page to become part of the conversation.
Featured Image: Blueprint for Life’s Calgary Young Offender team