Last fall, the MMI Works team began preparing for a journey into the unknown—again.
Following last summer’s all-virtual program, MMI’s Director of Youth Programs, Brittney Bullock, and Youth Programs Manager Iris Hollister were once again tasked with reimagining what the program should look like. With a pandemic’s worth of experience navigating change under their belts, they were more comfortable with uncertainty, but no less dedicated to providing the most enriching experience possible.
By the end of the summer, interns got up-close and personal with a bear on a retreat in Gatlinburg, created original music videos, and took over MMI’s Instagram account (with our blessing) to document their journey into the mountains, into their creative processes—even into the kitchen where they helped prepare meals for the group. They trekked through the wilderness on group hikes, showed off their skills in a talent show, and journeyed into their pasts to find out what makes them who they are today.
It was a summer of firsts and never-befores. It was a summer none of us will forget.
So much has been written about the impact of self-care and wellness practices on our overall wellbeing—and that was before the pandemic hit. We all understand on a deep and visceral level that the past eighteen months have been devastating for our mental health. The full picture of how it’s affecting young people, however, has yet to emerge.
But what does it mean to be well, physically and mentally and emotionally? That’s the question the MMI Works team grappled with in planning for a summer program against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, social injustice, and economic insecurity.
One of the core tenets of the MMI Works program is social-emotional wellness, and it’s never been more important than it is right now. But, said Bullock, for this summer’s program, this year, the team sought to go beyond traditional practices. “Social-emotional learning is great, and something we always incorporate into our curriculum. It's necessary. But it feels like the thing that you enact when you're already well—it feels more like a practice to me. And a lot of us are not well. So what do we need to get there?”
Early on, the team decided to create a bubble of sorts for participants of this summer’s program. Somewhere they could be in community with one another, away from their everyday surroundings. One thing the pandemic has shown very clearly, Bullock said, is what’s missing when young people—all people, really—can’t interact with one another.
”We looked into what researchers and scholars were saying [about young peoples’ mental health] as a result of the times we’re living in, and how young people are going to experience that. That really opened the door for us.” After much consideration, the team landed on Gatlinburg—close enough to encourage a sense of community, but far enough away to feel like something brand new.
So what was it like spending a week with a group of teenagers?
“It was all the things,” said Bullock. “It was daunting. It was joyful. It was surprising. It was all of the emotions because when you are working with young people, it requires your full self.”
“Whenever we’re planning curriculum for the summer program,” said Bullock, “we always start with the same question: What do we want participants to know?”
For one, they wanted interns to have the opportunity to be somewhere else for a week, and to explore their relationship to individual and collective wellness. They also wanted to cultivate a supporting space for participants to remember and share their own stories—really thinking about where they come from, where they are, and where they’re going. And they knew that a week in the mountains of Tennessee was the perfect place to do it.
The group began each day with a sensory activity, or “energy cycle,” in which participants were invited to consider the energy they were experiencing, as well as the energy they were bringing to the group. With the stage set for deeper self exploration, they began to piece together their stories.
They pictured a tree. They asked themselves what their roots looked like. Where do they come from? What does their bark look like, and what are they made of? What are their branches like—what tools have they been blessed with? What other people or tools keep them grounded? And finally, what's the fruit? What do they want to become?
“We had students consider different time periods of their lives—for instance, between the ages of two and five,” Bullock explained. “We’d ask if they could remember an experience from that time in their lives. Then from six to ten, and so on. What happened? What was going on with you personally? What was going on around you? We held space for them to kind of think about that. We also asked them to think about the kind of ancestors that they want to be.”
Bullock said she quickly realized that although storytelling seems like the most natural thing in the world, it actually doesn’t come as easily to most of us as we might think. It’s one thing to remember a moment in time—quite another to place it in context.
But there are many ways to tell a story.
During the 2020 summer program, the Works team piloted an all-virtual, cross-collaborative creative approach, with participants working together to create works of visual art, dance, song, and writing. They knew they wanted to retain that element of the program, but this year, interns would have the benefit of collaborating in person during an isolated retreat.
Bullock said that the idea to have participants create music videos came about for a couple different reasons. First, she said, music videos are just cool. “I was thinking from a young person’s perspective, Who wouldn't want to make a music video? But I also understand the nature of our very online world. Everything is so media-driven.” Bullock said she wanted participants to walk away with a tangible piece of creative work.
She also had a talented musician in Hollister on her team. “I felt like with her skillset, we would be able to produce a musical piece,” she said. “Prior to having Iris on board, we didn’t have that expertise on the team.” They also enlisted the help of a few audio and video professionals to document the interns’ creative process, capture vocals, shoot film, and edit the final videos.
During the retreat, they brainstormed about what stories they wanted to tell in their videos, creating mood boards and drafting storyboards scene by scene. When they arrived back in Memphis, they spent the next two weeks producing their songs, writing lyrics, developing choreography, making countless edits, and shooting five wholly unique, high-quality music videos, covering topics ranging from lost love to growing up, from taking risks to finding yourself. [Click here to watch the final music videos!]
On the evening of August 6, the participants hosted a music video premiere for friends, family, and MMI staff at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. And they planned everything—the invites, the food, and the dress code (cocktail attire, naturally). It was a celebration filled with lots of love, laughs, and gratitude for being able to gather in that space and share the interns’ amazing work.
As the night came to a close, Bullock shared a few thoughts about the summer program—about the struggles that come with such an ambitious undertaking, about the support she and her team received, and especially, about the “fearless, exceptional, boundless, and amazingly creative” young people who made this summer one for the books:
“Participants, as you navigate the next wave of your journey, my hope for you all is that you remember this experience, that you remember what it took to get here, the sacrifices made, and the achievements. I want you to know that we are rooting for you. For your wellbeing, for your story, for your power tools, and for your journey. Once you’re in the family, you’re in, and nothing can change that.”
As the summer that was supposed to be our re-entry into normalcy comes to a close, and Memphis students settle into yet another school year unlike any other, we’re reminded that the only way out is through. And every journey starts with a single step.