Empowering a Community of Artists and Creating Space to Heal

Empowering a Community of Artists and Creating Space to Heal


Art. Music. Poetry. Theater. These are the pillars of The Fortune Society’s Creative Arts Program. Year-round arts learning at the agency, and the opportunity to share work with the larger community nurtures a nexus of artists in their pursuit of creative ideas while creating space for emotional healing after justice involvement.

“Creative expression matters and is its own life-giving force,” says Jamie Maleszka, Creative Writing Teacher at Fortune. “It’s a way of understanding and trying to digest the world.”

Through writing workshops, drawing classes, music recording and production sessions, and more, community members channel their emotions into art, while also tapping into their true selves. When it comes to Jamie’s Creative Writing classes, it is often the writers themselves who determine the direction of a typical session, depending on the experiences or current events they want to bring to the table. The ensuing discussion, creation, and performance can become a healing process that is both empowering and challenging after justice involvement.

“The justice system…literally takes away your name and gives you a number, and attempts to strip you of who you are. And often, the folks that we work with start to perceive themselves according to what's in that judge’s folder, what's in the court file. Art is one way that they can start to dismantle that,” Jamie says.

Holding space for the full breadth of self-expression has produced powerful moments in the Creative Writing classes. Jamie recalls a particular instance when a poet shared a spoken word piece about how her justice history and experience as a survivor of sexual assault had become points of strength.

“I still get goosebumps every time I think about it. She was such a warrior. And she stood up...and she just laid it out. I was stunned,” Jamie remembers. “I jumped out of my chair and was clapping. Soon, all the other writers were too.”

Afterwards, when Jamie asked how long the poet been thinking about the piece, she responded, “I’ve just been waiting for someone to ask.”

This is exactly what Jamie does through the Creative Writing program — as someone without justice involvement, she sees her role as holding a space for writers to come forward, express themselves without judgement, and nurture their voice on the page. Many participants never had this space before, and their poignant work reflects its necessity.

Doc, a vocalist, writer, and music composer, uses Fortune’s Arts programming as part of his therapeutic process. He was recently featured on Success Stories Vol. 1, the first album ever released in Fortune’s 52-year history.

“[Music is] life-giving. It’s a life source for me. It keeps me grounded and it keeps me focused,” he says.

Deacon Ireal K. Jacobs, another poet at Fortune, said the program helped him flourish as a writer.

“[Writing] is peaceful. If you got a lot on your mind…you can vent to the paper. And it can become art for somebody else,” he says.

Responses like these inspire Jamie to continue to be of service to the agency’s community of artists. The Creative Arts program does so through a myriad of ways—generating the annual Voices of Fortune publication, hosting public open mics, and partnering with other organizations like The Drawing Center and Studio Museum Harlem. Theater also takes center stage at Fortune. Through collaborations with organizations like the Public Theater, artists have starred in performances such as last year’s widely-publicized production of Hercules at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

The creative work produced by Fortune’s Arts program shows what’s possible when people have the space to explore and evolve into their full potential—as poets, musicians, writers, actors – and more.

“Art is agency, art is space and opportunity, and it can be closure, it can be an awakening…” says Jamie.

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