A Weekend with Elevated Thought: Empowering Youth through Activism and Artistic Expression

Nestled in a renovated textile mill off the sun-soaked sidewalk of Union Street in Lawrence, Massachusetts, resides a youth arts organization bursting at the seams with vibrancy.  Elevated Thought is a 501(c)(3) organization empowering and developing youth through art and social justice initiatives.  Although other organizations might preach the importance of the youth voice, Elevated Thought models how to put the concept into practice through multiple aspects of their work.

Composition of the Elevated Thought Community: A Microcosm of Lawrence

Elevated Thought prides itself on being a grassroots organization.  In a little over a decade, the milestones of success achieved by Elevated Thought prove art creates consciousness and investment in social issues.

The Students

When prompted with questions about education and community, the students of Elevated Thought in Lawrence, Massachusetts choose to create.  Expressing themselves through music, visual arts, poetry, and mixed-media, these young adults utilize inquiry and personal context to confront issues locally, regionally, and- at times- nationally.

As of this year, over twenty five core students, ages fourteen to twenty, attend this creative space year-round.  However, when taking into account Elevated Thought’s workshops in Greater Lawrence and Boston, this number jumps to well over four hundred.  For the sake of painting a clear, consistent understanding of Elevated Thought’s work, this article’s primary focus will be with its base within the city of Lawrence.

Elevated Thought primarily serves youth from Latinx communities.  This is no coincidence.  Lawrence has a long history of immigrant communities dating back to the wave of European migration of the mid-nineteenth century, much of which was due to its geographic location and prevalence of textile industry.  In the mid twentieth century, Lawrence transformed into a city with a robust population of Hispanic immigrants from the Caribbean and various Latin American countries.  2018 estimates from the United States Census state 79.1% of the current residents of Lawrence identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Lawrence’s population of over 76,000 people faces systemic challenges in the midst of its authentic and colorful history.  Failing schools, high poverty, crime, unemployment, teen pregnancy, and addiction when paired with an ineffective and tumultuous local government, overshadow the vibrant cultures and individuals living within the city.  It is with local investment and critical consciousness that Elevated Thought allows youth to be at the forefront of problem-solving in their community.

Today at Elevated Thought, the children served, the staff, administration, and board are predominately Latinx and people of color residing in the area.  They are not only from the city, but representative of their city.  In a world where women and minorities have to fight for equitable opportunities to become decision makers within their communities and fields, Elevated Thought employs their voices at the center of their work.

The Administration

This trend continues into the administration, where a large composition of their team is made up of former students who went through Elevated Thought programming. There is greater unity in vision and purpose, as these professionals not only have a first-person prospective of their work with local youth, but they also are members of the community they are serving.

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Marquis Victor (foreground) and two students-turned employees (Amaryllis Lopez and Wilfred Acosta) review video documentation of their impact over the past several years.  In some of the older videos, staff members are able to watch and reflect upon their own participation as students at Elevated Thought.

The employees status as former Elevated Thought students proves there is investment in the organization from its constituents- the community and students they serve.  This is a good sign for projecting sustainability of the program.

Upon meeting these individuals, it is clear Elevated Thought gave them tools to invest in their artistic talent and leadership skills.  Art created by students and the team is ubiquitous.  The team shares their work when they provide new prompts to students.  Artwork hangs on the walls.  Murals adorn the streets.  Their work is polished visually and contextually.  It is exciting to see their creativity is not stifled by their work at the organization; it is supplemented by it.

What is most exciting about students becoming staff and administrators is that it shows community buy-in to the mission and practice of Elevated Thought. When youth come of age to enter the work force, they need to invest in careers where they can see themselves becoming increasingly self-sufficient and successful.  For those who are privileged enough to do so, this often means moving to a different, larger city.  These recent graduates are not only investing in Elevated Thought for their community, they are investing in Elevated Thought for their careers.

Addressing a transition in students accessing opportunities at Elevated Thought

Elevated Thought’s Founding Executive Director, Marquis Victor did not hesitate to share some of his concerns for future inclusion.  He noted a rapid shift from mostly women to a predominately male presence in the program.

“Historically, women and queer youth have had a strong presence in Elevated Thought. Women and queer youth built what Elevated Thought is today,” explains Program Director Amaryllis Lopez.  She took a moment to elaborate on her experience.

“As a young girl, ET was definitely one of the few spaces where I felt confident, heard, and respected. I never felt unsafe or ignored while in programming. I had opportunities to work on my skills, experiment freely, and given leadership opportunities.”

Elevated Thought is already taking action to restore an inclusive space.  Discussions began earlier this year and the voices of the women and queer students are in the foreground of discussion.  It is exciting to see when a problem arrises, those affected are automatically given a platform to express their viewpoint and offer primary solutions.

A Sense of Place: the Value of Location, Structure, and Design

There is something magical about the transparency of Elevated Thought’s physical layout.  Although Marquis Victor explains they are quickly outgrowing the space, the current structure is certainly communal in every sense of the word.

Many nonprofits struggle with feeling like they need to aesthetically look like a nonprofit.  This “nonprofit culture of poverty” often delegitimizes the work conducted within the organization.  This is not the case at Elevated Thought.

The staff and administration shared their humble beginnings in search of a space to do their work.  They first transitioned out of a school and into their own establishment in the basement of their current building.  After growing their work and winning new grants, the organization moved onto the ground level of the converted textile mill.

Their current location comes with far more benefits. The windows on the first floor provide much needed natural light for those working, which allows the organization to save on energy while enhancing the quality of life of those in the space. Their new location also makes Elevated Thought visible as a functioning part of the city from those passing by.  Art as well as students working can be seen from the street.  Those unfamiliar with the organization might feel more inclined to stop by during an event, as the space appears more accessible and transparent.  Furthermore, their new location is something to be proud of.  There sense of increased value when design and visibility is put into consideration.  Many design and architecture principals are based on this concept.  Although some of these factors were possibly subconscious considerations, the benefits are apparent throughout the Elevated Thought workspace.

Entering the Space

As mentioned before, Elevated Thought is located in a converted textile mill off of the Merrimack River.  The door is embellished with a colorful design on its exterior walls.  The vestibule is adorned with art from the organization’s students and collaborators. Turning around, as if to exit the space, visitors are given one final prompt asking “What is education?”  Those returning are welcome to use their space for further rumination.

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Artwork hung over Elevated Thought’s exterior door prompts their visitors to question how and where they learn.

Art is omnipresent.  Rotating murals adorn the interior surfaces, art hangs on a curated wall, and there are opportunities for collaboration and artistic discovery throughout the space.

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Polaroid portraits taken of community members, by community members, are displayed on an easel with their prompt: “Describe yourself in one word.” These photos were taken at a community outreach event in Lawrence, MA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gallery wall is adorned with local high school art from seniors in the program.  By the end of the month, the curated wall will feature women, femme, and queer artists for the Lawrence Pride Festival.

An additional benefit of this gallery space is that 80% of all proceeds go back to the artist when they sell their art at Elevated Thought.  This is a far better rate than most nonprofit galleries will provide.  Marquis Victor justifies Elevated Thought’s 20%, as it will go back into purchasing supplies for other young artists to use.

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This antique, schoolhouse desk provides another moment for pondering the topic of education. Here, students can draw, write, and fill the desk with their reflections.  The traditional piece juxtaposes the innovative work at Elevated Thought, but the act of students writing on desks seems timeless and familiar.  This is another way this organization provides countless spaces for critical thinking skills and self expression.

In the front of the room, art supplies are organized and out in the open for students to access.  They are in low shelving, allowing equal access to the materials.  Most of the materials provided are professional grade, allowing students to truly understand and master their mediums.

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When our workshop began, members of the Elevated Thought team encouraged us to utilize whatever materials we desired, just like their students would.

The space is like a living room, with creaking hardwood floors, rustic touches, and plenty of seating- but it is the people in that space who make Elevated Thought feel like home. Amongst all the art, the first thing one will see when entering the main space is the staff, working diligently adjacent to the door.  You are greeted by friendly faces, hard at work to provide opportunities for those entering from across the room.  Although the essence of humanity adorns the walls, it is human interaction that greets you.  Marquis Victor made this one of his guiding principals, embedded into the philosophy of Elevated Thought.  Family culture is pivotal in his work, as it allows honesty, openness, care, consideration, and expectations of quality for students and staff alike.

Creating a Welcoming, Supportive, Safe Space

Marquis Victor elaborated on how he approaches creating an empowering space for community to express and have impact.  Before the creation of his organization or expansion of their work, it is important one assesses the needs of the community by speaking to those who are living and working in it.  This includes embedding oneself into the community and thoroughly experiencing life there.

Understanding Power Dynamics within a Community

Learning about the political landscape within and overseeing each community is imperative to recognizing the greater context of the area.  In the case of Lawrence, Marquis Victor provides an example related to funding for drug abuse.  “Money is coming in from outside the city to address the drug epidemic,” he states.  “It is important to understand where the money is coming from, because they are the ones making decisions for the city.”  This money could determine economic development in Lawrence, funding for educational programing, housing, medical care, policing, and other civil services that could drastically impact community members’ quality of life.

Other times, there are forces within the city, such as religious organizations and other service groups.  Discerning the ideologies and missions of these entities is imperative to functioning and sustaining as a community organization.

Rather than working solely against these entities, Victor stresses the need for partnership and collective efforts.  By understanding the strengths of these programs and forces, partnership can maximize one’s efforts for community advocacy.   This includes supporting them where there are common goals while simultaneously holding these entities accountable when their actions are hurting the community.

Elevated Thought touches base with these groups in various ways.  They distribute surveys to students and the broader community in order to better understand who they are serving, what their concerns are, and their opinions about possible solutions.  Elevated Thought “meets the community where they are,” which often includes doing workshops with community centers and attending local functions.  Elevated Thought also sponsors community events centered around collaboration, celebration, and beautification.  Each of these efforts allows Elevated Thought to expand awareness of the work they are doing, invite community participation, and to employ consistent active listening into the work they do.

Marquis Victor expands upon the definition of active listening, stating the most important aspect of it is to put the community’s concerns into action. This proves Elevated Thought values the community’s expertise on their own obstacles.  It creates a true sense of a united front in collaborating against systemic issues.

Creating a Culture of Inclusivity within Elevated Thought

A student’s first day at Elevated Thought is imperative to the culture of inclusivity and dedication fostered within the organization.  A member of the Elevated Thought staff has an informal conversation with each student.  This one-on-one time allows for staff to explain their mission, show the student the campus, and establish expectations.  During this time, the staff member will also review the student’s application.  This document highlights the student’s interests, allowing the Elevated Thought team time to find resources and connect each student with someone who is involved in their area of interest.

This introductory period also gives the staff an understanding of the student’s fit within the program.  When asked to elaborate, Marquis Victor said new students are given a prompt to see if they can connect with it or possibly create.  “The first prompt is usually very telling,” admits Victor, “We support them by reminding them our expectations.  They can strategize and brainstorm rather than creating a masterpiece.”  If a student is shut down or confrontational, they will often elect not to return or- in rare cases- be asked not to return.  Ultimately, the decision to be productive, respectful, and welcoming comes down to each individual who applies for Elevated Thought.

Young People at Work

Everything begins with high expectations for students at Elevated Thought.  Their time in the workspace is not just for arts and crafts, but, rather, for building their professional capacity so they can be self-sufficient, confident, productive members of society.

Professional Skill Development

In addition to refining students’ artistic techniques, Elevated Thought allows students to take full ownership of their ideas as they put them into work.  In order to do so, many students require additional skills to refine their professional presentation.  This includes, but is not limited to, expectations for being on time, attendance, time management, and communication.  Elevated Thought provides informal mentorship and strong expectations to reinforce these attributes.  Putting ideas into action allows students to apply these skills and learn from experience- both through success and failure.

Giving students the ability to test their ideas and practices in real-world settings provides an irreplaceable opportunity to learn from society itself.  If one does not meet expectations working in their profession, there are consequences.  Sometimes this means losing a deal with someone who wanted to commission work, getting demoted, or losing some of your reputation.  Similarly, there are similar consequences at Elevated Thought as well.  This sometimes means the organization will need to cut back on the work given the individual lacking responsibility.  Students can then grow from these experiences and make adjustments before beginning their adult careers.

Lawrence Youth Council

In addition to their artistic work, the Lawrence Youth Council provides a rare platform for civic engagement, local advocacy, and leadership.

“The Lawrence Youth Council (LYC) was created under the City of Lawrence Mayor’s Health Task Force (MHTF) with awareness-raising and activism as some of its core elements, carried out through the lens of social justice and health equity, in line with the MHTF.  LYC members are charged with representing youth in the city of Lawrence, creating opportunities to give youth a voice, advocating for issues important to youth, and organizing and developing youth-related projects, programs, events, and activities.  Through a contract with the city, Elevated Thought has coordinated the LYC for almost four years.” – Elevated Thought homepage for the Lawrence Youth Council

Students at Lawrence Youth Council are using their experiences to take ownership of their communities and facilitate change.  With the LYC, students have a space and legitimacy to voice their perspectives on today’s issues and suggest how to address them.  With the LYC, students from Lawrence have a voice in local government.

In 2017, students in the Lawrence Youth Council were invited to the United States Department of Education in Washington D.C. to display art and speak their concerns.  At the capital, students shared personal stories along with the findings of surveys conducted through Elevated Thought to make their case for school improvement.  They also took their moment at the capital to present the Youth Bill of Rights in order to proliferate school improvements across the country.

This Youth Bill of Rights, translated in both English and Spanish, states the following inherent rights for students:

  1. Student needs come first. Youth voices are the basis for all school decisions that affect them.
  2. Students are liberated through their creations.  Schools will use a curriculum promoting cultural heritage and true critical thinking through creativity and imagination.
  3. Students’ vision is developed with and through their communities. School leaders provide consistent accountability, equity, and transparency to all members of the community.  Students also have more opportunities to find out what they like and what they’re good at during the school day through increased mentorships, place-based learning, and student-led learning.
  4. Students’ healthy growth is ensured. Schools provide nutritional menu options and healthy eating initiatives, along with resources and information to foster healthy student growth on all levels- physical, mental, and emotional.
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This work, alongside another male figure of a similar composition, hung in the United States Department of Education Gallery after LYC’s visit to Washington D.C. in 2017.

Personal Reflections

Elevated Thought is getting right what many organizations struggle with.  In my personal experience, there is often a disjointed relationship between non-profit organizations and their community, as well as from the administration to their constituents.  It is impossible for an organization to be community oriented without actively listening to the community itself.  Elevated Thought, in nearly every way, immerses itself into community.  It is a breath of fresh air.

After meeting his staff on campus, I can see how Elevated Thought produces a welcoming, supportive creative space.  I would be so proud to see my students grow up to be like the people working there.  They were kind, honest, confident, and were excited to share their community with us.  Although we were there to learn about their work, all of the staff took time to ask us questions, listen to our perspectives, and share their own.  In truth, all of these factors is what education looks like to me.

On a more structural level, I was excited to hear Marquis’ plans for an expanded campus.  As an educator and an artist, I truly believe he is taking design seriously in a way that will create spaces conducive to various learning approaches.  I eagerly await the day when Elevated Thought opens up an independent campus in their image.

Marquis Victor was also very forthcoming about his blend of public grants, foundations, and donors fueling the organization he directs.  I look forward to seeing more transparency about funding on Elevated Thought’s website, as I believe this will allow further community trust.  Additionally, a break down of funding acquisitions will give future donors and investors a better outlook of the financial sustainability of their 501(c)(3), making them more willing to invest.

Elevated Thought provides students with healthy outlets to address and catalyze change for their futures.  Artistic expression and dialogue in a safe, inclusive space allows students to explore their unique identities in a productive manner.  Confidence and community investment grow with their activism both in their art and in local government.  In all, Elevated Thought is a celebration of individuality and culture with an investment in equitable access to a robust education and social justice.

Data Collection

Research for this space was first conducted on-site in Lawrence.  Elevated Thought’s physical location served as the primary location for this research, followed by a stroll down Essex Street and into a local establishment.  Along the way, there were several murals accenting the exteriors of local shops and restaurants; several of which were created by Elevated Thought.  Majority of the data collected was through Narrative Inquiry while on site.  Supplemental questions sent by email and were answered by the Founding Executive Director, Marquis Victor and Program Director Amaryllis Lopez.

The Narrative Inquiry method provides qualitative research as a foundation for developing a greater understanding of other’s experiences. Research is conducted through experience in the field, field data, followed by supplemental research through text (Clandinin, 2007).  In this particular case, this involved in-person experience at Elevated Thought, along with documentation on site, as well as continued analysis of their organization, the demographics they serve, and further inquiry.  This yielded a more robust understanding of the impact of their organization on the youth they directly serve in Lawrence, as well as the scope of their outreach in communities across Greater Boston.

For more on Elevated Thought, click here.

Additional sources:

Gibson, Campbell and Kay, Jung. Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000. U. S. Census Bureau, Population Division; 2006.

Paulu, Nancy. (2017). “What is Education?” Elevated Thought Students Respond Via the Arts. https://blog.ed.gov/2017/06/what-is-education-elevated-thought-students-respond-via-the-arts/

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