Writing to Heal: NOLA Program Uses Poetry, Essays to Help Students Confront Trauma
When the bus arrived in front of the convenience store where Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old man, had been killed three months earlier by two police officers in Baton Rouge, Nic Aziz instructed his students to go inside and choose something that they would typically buy, such as candy, chips, or soda pop – something seemingly insignificant.
To reach the store, the 16 young individuals, most of whom had little exposure beyond their impoverished neighborhood in New Orleans, had to pass by a mural depicting Sterling and an altar adorned with flowers and photographs brought by members of the community.
Sterling’s killing on July 5, 2016, occurred at close range while he was restrained on the ground by the officers who had responded to a report of an individual with a gun making threats outside the store. The incident was caught on video by the store’s owner and customers, sparking protests that engulfed Baton Rouge in the following days. Although the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to prosecute the officers in May, Louisiana officials initiated their own investigation.
As Aziz had anticipated, the teenagers were profoundly moved by the makeshift memorial’s striking beauty. All of them were students at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, and they sat outside the Triple S Food Market to write letters to Sterling.
"This is a convenience store. This is where he was killed," Aziz recalled. "Many of them wrote about the tragedy of it. They enjoyed what they bought, and maybe he, too, loved it, but he would never have the chance to have it again."
Some went beyond simple letters and wrote narrative descriptions or poems, deviating from conventional poetic structures:
I sit here gazing at a wall adorned with a painting
of love and remorse; it speaks of values
held by the people who thought highly of a man.
Minds esteem honorable individuals,
people of hope and respect. As we sit here,
the harsh reality sinks in, and people
will forever remember this heart-wrenching tragedy.
Fancy cars and loud music,
what am I doing here?
Does it make any difference?
"Have I not seen enough tragedy?
Forgotten" may be something I can achieve,
but when you truly think about it, what does it mean? – Meaningful Murals, T. Childress
The excursion served as a "pop-up" trial for WriteBrained, a project envisioned by Aziz to empower young individuals to confront trauma through creative writing. According to Aziz, that day’s field trip was a tremendous success, surpassing all his expectations.
The next destination was Louisiana State University, during its homecoming weekend. "Before we even stepped off the bus, some of the students noticed that this area looked completely different from where we were previously," Aziz recounted.
One student approached an older white woman dressed in the university’s purple and gold team colors. "What do you think would have happened if it had been an LSU football player who was killed instead of Alton Sterling?" the girl asked. Aziz doesn’t know exactly what was said, but the student and the woman engaged in a friendly conversation for a while.
The group proceeded to write again, with some students articulating their feelings about being on a college campus.
"Even though the Alton Sterling site was just a few blocks away, the campus felt very clean and safe. However, despite its cleanliness and safety, I felt less comfortable there. Growing up in the neighborhood, you become desensitized to things that shock people from the outside looking in." – "The Difference in a Few Blocks: A Reflection," T. Coleman
It seems fitting that Aziz, 26, would instinctively recognize the creative potential of removing a group of young individuals from their familiar environment and encouraging them to explore their vulnerability through art. As the son of a Haitian immigrant mother and a father who was once involved with the Nation of Islam, Aziz was considered gifted and excelled in his class until his mother, with the best intentions, enrolled him in an all-boys, predominantly white Catholic high school.
"Fortunately," he remarked, "I never completed my education there."
Hurricane Katrina had a positive impact on Aziz’s life as it forced his family to evacuate. This led him to attend a public school in Shreveport, followed by Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then the University of Manchester. During his time at Manchester, he was the only black man in his graduate program, but it was a different experience for him compared to high school because the student body consisted of individuals from 130 different countries.
Aziz wanted other New Orleans youth to have the opportunity to explore new places and cultures and to reconsider their own identities. He believed that leaving one’s comfort zone could inspire artistic expression and healing.
Aside from running WriteBrained, Aziz is also a visual artist. He views writing as a fundamental form of art and credits it as the foundation for his personal journey of liberation. It was through writing that he was able to embark on his educational pursuits and travel experiences.
In the spring of 2016, Aziz wrote a pitch about his vision for WriteBrained, which ultimately secured him his first 4.0 schools fellowship. He completed a second fellowship over the next four months. In October, he was ready to start taking students on field trips.
After a successful trip to Baton Rouge, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School agreed to establish an after-school club for almost 20 students, with Aziz as the leader. Throughout the 2016-17 school year, the club met every two weeks and went on monthly trips. The students had the opportunity to visit and write about various locations, including a nature area in Clark Creek, the Whitney Plantation (the only preserved antebellum property showcasing the perspective of slaves), and an art project in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
One notable art project, called Solitary Gardens, involved planting garden plots on small pieces of land the size of solitary confinement cells. This project aimed to bring attention to the issue of mass incarceration. Visitors were able to exchange letters with inmates occupying cells in Louisiana prisons, which connected to the students’ experience at the Triple S Food Market.
This year, WriteBrained has become an in-school enrichment club that meets twice a week for half an hour and will go on 14 field trips throughout the year. Aziz hopes to secure funding for another after-school program to allow for more time with the students.
After the Baton Rouge trip, Aziz compiled the students’ writings into a book. Although their letters were addressed to Alton Sterling, it was empowering to think that their words could impact and inspire others.
I acknowledge that your life was taken without reason
And unfortunately, things have not changed since your tragic fall
People of color are still being unjustly killed
But we will continue to stand together, united
We have tried to bring peace to the world, but progress has been slow
Nevertheless, we will persist in fighting for you and everyone else without a doubt.