Late September – the fall season in North Eastern USA, but still feeling like high summer in the South East – I visited Houston to meet and interview Matt Russell and Marlon Lizama, who have been directing an outstanding creative writing programme with students from some of the most challenging schools and difficult neighbourhoods in Houston, Texas.
Houston is not only one of the most culturally diverse cities in the USA, but is also one of the fastest growing, and is on the verge of becoming the third largest city in the USA. It’s also one of the cities notorious for what has become known as the ‘school-to-prison-pipeline’. As Marlon told me, “It’s a very sad, serious problem, and it starts with something minor like truancy, or it could be a fight. Then a student will get a ticket, or they’ll be suspended. Then they have to go to court; that’s the beginning. Eventually they mess up again – because kids mess up, because they’re kids – but they’re not allowed to mess up.” And almost before they know how it happened, the students find themselves in custody – in a ‘lockdown’ facility. “As a result, they do some time, and they come back out and they’re on probation now, and they go back to school – but not to their old school, but to a charter school or an alternative school, where they have more ‘problem kids’ – at-risk kids. Eventually, they’ll end up getting in more trouble – because the adults are there to monitor the kids and to be ready when they mess up again. Then they’re in the criminal justice system. It’s very easy. A lot of times if you go to these lockdowns, and you ask the kids if they can remember how it started, and a lot of them will tell you it was something very minor: ‘I acted up in class.’ ”
Marlon was a student at one of those difficult schools, but became fascinated, through involvement in Hip-hop, in poetry and dance. As a teenager, he quickly became recognised as one of the best breakdancers in the country, and began touring the world, as a State Department funded cultural ambassador for the USA. But on returning to Houston, and starting a family of his own, he decided he wanted to share with youngsters with backgrounds like his, his own the sense of personal liberation, fulfilment and empowerment he’d discovered in expressing himself creatively through art.
Looking for support and funding, he was introduced to Matt Russell, a theologian and pastor at St Paul’s Methodist Church in Houston, and an activist committed to helping to break down the barriers of social class and race that separate people in so many American cities, and to create what he has described as ‘spaces for improbable friendships to grow’. Firstly, Matt’s church and then private donations enabled Iconoclast Artists to begin a series of workshops in which leading poets, and now visual artists, have been able to help young people at risk of slipping into the pipeline by virtue of where they live and where they attend school, to recognise and develop their creative potentials.
Looking to what is now a much more uncertain future for the youngsters of Houston’s minority communities, Matt asserted his and Marlon’s commitment to the Iconoclast mission: “Marlon and I envision being a part of creating a whole new community of artists within Houston that are interacting in ways that in some way engender these improbable friendships, reaching across divides. We see iconoclast growing from writing to visual, arts and we’re starting to collaborate with local artists. If you look on our website you can see the range of our partnering artists – from high academics to street artists and that’s the range that we want to make available and to cultivate among our students. So we’re trying to create an artistic community which is both rooted in the local but is also reaching out to other art and artists beyond that.”
Mick Gowar, Co-Director, New Routes Old Roots.