In a public school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn,?N.Y., Stephen A. Wilson Jr., founder of TWW Inc. (Talks With Wolves) in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, delivered grim statistics to a group of middle school students. ?Out of you four, maybe by percentage wise, maybe only two of you will graduate from high school,? Wilson told the boys, who were resisting an assignment that required them to read slave narratives then write one of their own. ?Out of three, maybe only one will go to college.??
This exchange was filmed as part of a documentary called ?Middle School/Middle Passage (The Journey),? which chronicles Wilson and his organization as they worked with the Betty Shabazz School for the Performing Arts (PS/IS 298) to implement an education program aimed at promoting literacy and the arts using African and Native American culture.?His desire is for the students who experience the TWW program to defy the statistics.
Brownsville is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and one of the most distressed sections of Brooklyn. A disproportionate segment of the Brownsville population lives below the poverty level, unemployment is soaring, and crime is a serious problem. At the writing of this story, Malachi Cotton, a local high school student, was shot and later died on his way home from school.
Wilson believes his organization?s multi-disciplinary arts program will help turn things around and improve the lives of students, many of whom are struggling with the standard education model.??People think of art as dance, drawing, painting. No, art is history, tradition concepts, spirituality, science and math.?Everything is coming through art,? Wilson says in the film. Art has been taken out of most schools when it?s ?a fundamental way of teaching,? he laments.?
The film follows the day-to-day struggles of the teachers who are implementing the curriculum with the students.??There?s such a disconnect with what happened in the past and I think our generation for some reason did not continue to teach it to our children,? says?a teacher in the documentary, who was identified as Mrs. Booker.
A few of the students were not eager to participate in the four-month program, but many were very engaged. The project culminated in a performance for the community.?The sixth graders were taught African dance, while the seventh graders learned about their ancestors using visual arts, which included heritage masks, Kachina Dolls and painting.?The eighth graders were challenged with writing their own personal narrative from the perspective of a slave.?Most of the girls did the assignment, but not their male counterparts. In an e-mail to TNJ.com, Wilson reported that only one boy eventually came through with the slave narrative assignment after the documentary was filmed.??
The program was a resounding success. Many students said they gained more pride, self-confidence and discipline and showed improved grades. Others, however, said it was not that important to embrace the past.?Wilson argues that such apathy stems from gang affiliations, family issues and a feeling that ?education itself failed them.? He and his team still have their work cut out for them.?Part two of the documentary will explore the legacy of Black Indians, a little-known ethnic community made up of Americans with both African and Native heritage. Here again the students learn through theater, visual arts and dance.
According to the TWW Web site (www.talkswithwolves.org/index.html), ?the term ?Black Indians? is unfamiliar to many, and their stories are excluded from most historical narratives of both African-American and Native American cultures, yet the history of Black Indians provides students with a unique model of inclusion, collaboration and resistance.?
Wilson recently won the Union Square Arts Award for his work with the New York education system through Talks With Wolves.??