Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Marquis Victor: Art is a humanizing process. I think we need to access our creative capacities to understand self, and understand how the world works.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Marquis Victor. He is the Founding Executive Director of Elevated Thought. Welcome to our program.
Marquis Victor: Grateful to be here. Thank you.
Anita Walker: You run one of our stellar creative youth development programs, but say a little more about Elevated Thought for people who may be hearing about you for the very first time.
Marquis Victor: Sure. So we’re an art and social justice nonprofit focused in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and, you know, we believe that art is a form of liberation, and that young people, once they have access and exposure to art, they are able to build a foundation of self, and then expand their minds and eyes to the social landscape, identify issues in their communities, and use art to come up with creative solutions for those issues. We do youth programming after school, workshops for the community. We do beautification projects, and we also have an internal revenue generated service through our commission program, as well.
Anita Walker: So help us sort of get a mental image of what this really looks like. Could you tell a story about one of the young people you’ve worked with?
Marquis Victor: There’s a lot. Matter of fact, we have ten part time employees, and nine out of those ten part time employees are alumni of the program, so there’s a lot of young people that have a lot of stories in Elevated Thought, but, you know, I would just kind of bring it to one situation that represents many situations. And I think, when you look at our afterschool program, where young people come in, and there is conversation that’s started about a particular theme, you know, it could be something really philosophical, like the nature of reality. It could be something more pressing, like immigration, you know, which is something that a lot of our young people are experiencing in some way or another in their low lives because of, you know, Lawrence being a gateway community. So, you know, it starts. Elevated Thought always starts with a conversation, and getting different perspectives, different ideas. Once that conversation begins and booms, then it goes into individual creation. And once those creations happen based on those themes, those ideas, that conversation, then there’s a coming together again and sharing back those creations. And once another conversation happens after that, they get together and they say, “All right, so how can we collaborate? How can we bring our individual ideas, our individual creations together and do something that we can present to the community, to the public, and create a larger conversation?” So many young people who have engaged with this type of, you know, back and forth, this type of creative process, have been empowered, have been encouraged, to take their voice outside of the confines of Elevated Thought into the social landscape, whether it be a city council meeting, whether it, you know, in their schools, whether it be creating a public art that asks a lot of difficult questions. We’ve seen a lot of that in Elevated Thought, and I think that represents the core of what we do and the culmination of our mission.
Anita Walker: Correct if I’m wrong, but didn’t one of the young people in your program actually go on the school board?
Marquis Victor: Yes. We had a collaborating artist who spent a lot of time in our program, and she ran for a school committee, Alyssa Savas, and she was elected, and we actually, the young people organized a town hall before the school committee elections, and they had candidates go and get pressed by, you know, their peers, asked some very difficult questions. And then after that town hall, they went to the public and said, “All right. We support this candidate because X, Y and Z. We don’t support this candidate because we have this Bill of Rights that we developed as young people, and they’re not reflecting our Bill of Rights. So, you know, they’re entrenched in the process and trying to progress their city.
Anita Walker: You know, one of the things, when we talk about the creative youth development work that you and so many of our other organizations are doing, we always emphasize the fact that this is not about taking poor, broken children and fixing them and making them better. It’s really about recognizing the agency of each young human being that walks in the doors of your program, and providing a place for them to exercise that agency, not just on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of their community. I think that connection to social justice is so important.
Marquis Victor: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I believe art is a humanizing process. I think we need to access our creative capacities to understand self, and understand how the world works. And, unfortunately, in many of these under-resourced areas, like Lawrence, young people are not given opportunities to engage in that process, you know. If you’re talking about some areas, now I’m not speaking specifically of Lawrence, exactly, but, you know, you look across this country and there is young people in elementary school that don’t have access to art, or creativity, or imagination, so what’s that doing to their trajectory in life, you know, when they can’t even exercise that ability when it’s potent, and it’s fertile, and it needs to be utilized and leveraged for their own development. So, you know, when you strip that away from young people and tell them they can’t ask questions, or they can’t create, that’s a form of dehumanization. So art is, in our belief, and I think, you know, if you look historically, you can see the connection between art and the rise of movements, art and the rise of building an identity, you know, and we want to emphasize that at Elevated Thought.
Anita Walker: Talk a little about yourself. So you’re the Founding Executive Director of Elevated Thought. What brought you to this work?
Marquis Victor: Well, I mean, everything I’m saying applies to my own life. I think, you know, I think when you look at our lives as humans, you know, some of us have great privilege. Some of us have a little privilege. Some of us have no privilege at all, and I think, depending on your environment, how you’re raised, how you grow up, you either acknowledge that privilege and understand that you should be grateful for it, and find ways to leverage that privilege for yourself and for others. And I think, on the other side of the spectrum, it’s that kind of, you know, ignorance towards your own privilege. And for me, when I was growing up, I had some privileges, and I didn’t recognize them. And those privileges got stripped away from me, and I found myself asking some questions that I didn’t ask, never asked myself before, when I was eighteen, nineteen years old, how did I end up in this place? What am I doing? What is the point of all this, you know, dealing for the first time in my life with some existential angst, and not just going through the motions of complacency, which I think a lot of people who have consistent privilege, they can do that, you know. You just kind of go through the motions and don’t understand, you know, just how fortunate you are. So when that was taken away from me, certain privileges, and I had to kind of just face survival for the first time in my life, creativity, which I suppressed largely in my high school years, which I truly believe, you know, slowed down my development as a human being, it reemerged in the form of poetry, and I started to ask these questions through poetry about myself, but then I put my mind and eyes towards the world around me in these communities. In this particular time, I was in Providence, and I was looking around, and I was involved with some things that I hadn’t been privy to before, and I started asking why things were the way they were, and poetry was an avenue for me to ask those questions. Fast forward, as I continued to build that foundation itself creatively, my best friend and art director at Elevated Thought, we were seniors in college. Alex J. Bryan was creating this mural for his senior project in his brother’s rented out construction warehouse, and it was a huge panel mural. One side of the mural was a picture of John Coltrane, and he was playing the saxophone, and these music notes are flowing in and out of a loose depiction of Lawrence. You know, the city was dark. It was gritty. It was ominous, but there was glimmers of hope through shading and highlights in the background, and the music notes flowed to the other side of this mural. There was a young woman, and she was crying, and one of the words formed the word, “Why?” She was asking the questions, “Why is there so much sorrow in the city? Why is it unceasing, never ending?” And Alex asked me to come and write a spoken word piece. At that time I was doing a spoken word circuit, and I was going to do the spoken word piece at his senior exhibit while he was presenting this mural. And so we had some other friends in this warehouse, and we got into this conversation, you know. Yeah. Why is this the way it is? Why is society the way it is, and started talking about history, then started to get a little existential. And, you know, at that point I just put my head up, and I was like, well, look, we got art. We got conversation. We got poetry. Maybe as seemingly insignificant as we are, maybe this is what we could, you know. We could present these issues through art that we see in society, and if nobody has answers for them, maybe we come up with some solutions ourselves. And I said, “This is Elevated Thought right here,” and it stuck. And, you know, a couple of years down the line, I was getting my master’s degree. Leslie and I had a partnership at the Anti-Defamation League at Boston. They asked me to write a social justice curriculum. At the time I was teaching at the school in Roxbury, and I had Alex come up. And I was like, “Hey, man, I got this opportunity to do this art and social justice curriculum, and let’s do poetry street art.” He came up, taught the kids history of street art. In infused it with poetry. They experimented. They collaborated, and then they identified issues in the community, and they created with those issues as the foundation, and that was the start of our youth program right there. That was in 2010, and that’s the same year we became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Anita Walker: And so you went to Lawrence with your program.
Marquis Victor: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Do you know how many youth you’ve served since then?
Marquis Victor: I mean, through the workshops that we’ve done, through our programs, through the beautification efforts that we’ve communities involved with, it’s been over two thousand young people that we’ve worked with in some capacity.
Anita Walker: So one of the questions that I’m sure you have thought very, very deeply about is what is it about the creative process that is so essential to our humanity?
Marquis Victor: I mean, you could get real metaphysical with that question, to be honest. I mean, I think what is the soul, you know. Is there something that science still hasn’t been able to get concrete answers for is the consciousness, the consciousness and the soul. And I think when you’re creating, you are going deep within self, and you’re accessing parts that we, as a species, can’t even define. And so that makes the creative process, in my eyes, so intimate, so powerful, so raw, and so when you create, and it spills out in whatever form you create with, you know, you’re accessing and you’re bringing to life for others to see essential elements of humanity, and I think that power, that realness, is– you can speak different languages. You can be from cultures, but art, in some way, can speak to you even if it’s created on the other side of the world. There’s something pandemic and intrinsic to our very essence, I think, about the creative process. I think that’s why it’s so dynamic. I think that’s why it’s so powerful, and I think that’s why it’s so utterly absurd that it’s not taken seriously, and it’s embedded in more aspects of our system structures that we have.
Anita Walker: Are you concerned as you look at the prospects for the next generation growing up in a world that’s highly transactional, where technology and sort of the industrial accountability complex wants to reduce everything to data points, and counting, and numbers, and sort of the respect and time it takes for the kind of creative process that you’re describing, does it really have a place?
Marquis Victor: Well, I think yes. I think, though, what we’re seeing right now, and I think it might even be on a subconscious level where you’re seeing this kind of resurgence of art in all these different areas, it’s almost like a pseudo Renaissance that’s happening, and I think it’s because humans understand that, you know, technology is advancing faster than we can fathom, and it’s going to continue to do that, but are we balancing that out with kind of the evolution of our own species, and how we engage with one another when we’re not connected, you know. And I think this rise in art, and this appreciation and desire to have art in more places is a reflection of that understanding, and it’s not on this massive scale right now, but you can look across Massachusetts and just see the rise of art on a massive scale, if it’s murals, and beautification projects, like Beyond Walls in Lynn, organizations like Mass Cultural Council, organizations like Essex County Community Foundation, who have their creative county initiatives, who are making it a point to instill art in different areas in the state, and start to build out further the creative economy. I think there can be a relationship between technology and art, but art is, like I said, is something that is so deep within us, and I think we’re starting to see more people understand and appreciate that, and so you’re starting to see this desire come out in more ways across our communities.
Anita Walker: Marquis Victor, Founding Executive Director of Elevated Thought, another one of Creative Minds Out Loud.
Marquis Victor: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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