by Brittney B. Bullock

Your liberation is bound up with mine. – Lilla Watson

I often talk about liberation. How it functions and feels. I question at times if I have it, and if I’d know when I had it. I point it out when I see it. When I see it lovingly drenched over others or the lack of its presence in spaces and places. Liberation is not a gift or special place or magical being, it’s a birthright. And because we are beings, living and moving of this earth, we (all of us!) are entitled to and require liberation. I think about this when sharing space and energy with young people and how often they feel stifled in their ideas, dreams, and desires.

MMI Works is approaching its fourth summer with participants who have been part of the program since inception. Planning and prep for PD sessions are always exciting, but this year sparked a new level of excitement. I knew we had and needed to make some changes in our content and learning opportunities. In the process of planning, I like to consider themes or pockets of ideas; and in this particular moment, the craving for liberation and freedom in our content curriculum is imperative.

I always welcome and charge myself with reimagining the comfortable, less enticing, no real prep or planning, as we know it, way of working with young people; like that spark-less, stagnant, no time or space to dream or reimagine or to be visionary kind of way. Or like the systems and school/learning settings operating and treating young people as if they don’t belong, or are less than, or seen as other; with little to no color in the building, sterile and stale walls, high schoolers walking in single-file lines, no talking at the lunch tables, and little-to-no JOY. As these reminders resonate and settle in my thinking, I recall a special line given to me by way of Lynn Johnson, project/program director living in Oakland, CA: “Be who you needed when you were younger.” Aha! Yes, be that!

Who I needed, was someone giving me space (physical and mental) to dream up some of my wildest ideas, and then allowing me to test them out in the world and in real time, even if that meant on a small scale due to resources or time. Someone who reminded me to be full of courage, to be vulnerable, and to teach me how to enact self-regulation and care (okay, stress management!) when needed. This is what our professional/personal development curriculum is rooted in; teaching real world, life skills while ungirding all content in joy, practicality, and truth-telling. It’s liberation work, and it’s time we talk and encourage liberation at all levels.

I’ll define the themes I’ve mentioned and as you think about your programs, or how you show up with and for young people, my hope is that this will spark new ways of being or affirm those who are doing or living this, and or those who are practicing and cultivating liberation. I also want to remind you that liberation work is constant and  often times arduous simply because of… you guessed it, capitalism. So don’t worry or brood too much or throw all of your programs out (unless you need to), it’s baby steps, and in full transparency, I’ve been planning and ruminating on this idea for 2 years; see, baby steps. But do know it’s possible for you and how you work, especially with young people.

Here’s what I mean when I say:

Liberation: I’m referring to the act of moving, deciding, and participating in ideas, work, and experiences that remove disadvantages for all and allows freedom from our mental limitations. It requires you to release your self-created bondage and the bondage of other people, and for you to check and then eliminate your individual ego. It requires you to dream and imagine new possibilities and as a really good friend once shared “to at times hold the faith and the struggle for others when they get tired, and always remind them of their innate power and strength”.

Joy: Reflect back on a time when you were joyful as a young person, think through the conditions that made it a joyful experience. How did it look and feel? Who were the people in the space, what was their vibe? When I refer to joy, I think of creating content and spaces that are pleasurable and enacts all senses. Spaces that allow teaching to happen in a nonjudgmental, decriminalizing kind of way. Where young people can find pleasure in learning new things and play at the same time. And you can have joy in planning and implementation too, make it worth-wild, make more“wow-work”!

Practicality: Refers to the question of “How does this play out in real life”? Who wants to learn a lesson that doesn’t require practicality… no one. Not even young people. It’s vital as we create and implement curriculum that we attach real life experiences and examples on how it shows up in the real world in real time, not in ancient, antiquated time, but real time. Always thinking through what’s feasible, possible, and viability in all circumstances or situations.

Truth-telling: A young person once shared with me, they often don’t listen to adults because they don’t tell the truth. Insert mind-blown emoji. I vow to always lead in truth with young people and quite frankly with everyone. To say when I’m conflicted, to share when I’m lost, and to share my experiences even when I’m embarrassed or out of flow. We must lead in truth, that’s the only way of being, and they see straight through us when we don’t.

What I know for sure, is liberation, joy, practicality, and truth-telling are only a few tenets of how to operate and move in the presence of young people, but these are not all. And what I also know, is there are myriad of ways to engage in your work as youth advocates; you can give yourself and your teams space and permission to reimagine and to be free.

Brittney Boyd Bullock born and raised in Memphis Tennessee has worked as Project Manager at the Urban Art Commission managing the city’s largest public art archive and as the Partnerships and Community Engagement Manager for Crosstown Concourse & Crosstown Arts overseeing a variety of collaborative creative programs and exhibitions. She now holds the position of Youth Program Manager for the Memphis Music Initiative helping to build sustainable relationships with Memphis’ youth while implementing youth-led and youth-driven programs. Her passion for cultivating trust and lasting relationships has helped to naturally create opportunities for collaboration with various communities, organizations, and artists that invite participation from a broad range of backgrounds and expertise. As a former fellow and now mentor of the ArtUp Fellowship, her interests in community engagement and social change has led her to an artistic practice that embraces the idea of redefining why to create, how to create, and for what purpose. In 2017, the Kresge Foundation awarded Bullock and community partner to implement a creative entrepreneurship project by using art as the vehicle for civic practice and social enterprise. As a freelance artist, she is most interested in art that questions and analyzes identity, culture, and the notions of power and ownership.