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Memphis students use prose, art to advocate for social justice

by Avery Cunningham
Special to The New Tri-State Defender

It is all too common to feel that one’s voice is not being heard in this information age – from social media to the news to pop culture. Now, more than ever, it can feel as if a million voices are speaking at once, making it impossible for a single voice to be discerned.

For young people especially, this sensation manifests in many ways. Even though they have much to say, their age, inexperience and the multitude of competing voices may silence them.

Enter Memphis Challenge, which seeks to reverse that sensation and return voice, agency and confidence in expression to the youth of Memphis.

Founded in 1989, Memphis Challenge is a personal and professional development nonprofit organization that helps high-achieving students of color in grades 9-12 become the future leaders of Memphis. Over the past three decades, Memphis Challenge’s mission has been to “inspire and develop future Memphis leaders.”

This year, Memphis Challenge students used the “Tell Me A Story: The Courage of Creativity” project to define courage, embrace their own agency and express the beauty, the pain and the triumph of fighting for what is right.

Officially launched on April 15, the project showcases four zines, which are grassroots, independent publications of prose and art and are comparable to journals or magazines. The zines were developed by Memphis Challenge students over a three-month capstone experience for the year.

The “Tell Me A Story: The Courage of Creativity” project positioned Memphis Challenge students to experience the beauty, pain and triumph of fighting for what is right. (Courtesy photo)

“We had our students focus on artist Henri Mattise’s idea that creativity takes courage; courage to express the beauty, pain and triumphs of everyday life,” said Cassandra Webster, executive director of Memphis Challenge. “The result of these zines is amazing. Our students sincerely expressed their views on today’s social justice issues and what it will take for us all to unite for the greater good.”

In honor of the MLK50 commemoration, each zine features a social justice theme. This thematic focus highlights the struggles of the past and the hopes of the future from a student lens.

“Zines were the most ideal medium for Challengers to explore their respective topics. (They) are meant to be a platform for the unconventional, or a break from the norm, allowing for creativity to be showcased,” said McKenzii Webster, alumna and program consultant at Memphis Challenge.

“(Students) were able to focus on topics that impact them and their communities, and share their perspective in a creative and refreshing way.”

With guidance from professional artists and writers, students worked together to combine poetry, nonfiction and visual art to create four publications reflecting on women’s issues, immigration, current issues and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

All of the pieces deal with sensitive, complex issues ranging from the impact musical genres have on the soul of a generation (“When Words Fail, Music Speaks” by Sidney Martin), the visible and hidden scars women carry (“Scars: A Woman’s Testimony” by KaMia Jenkins), the weight of the word “undocumented” on those who are forced to bear it (“Undocumented: The Truth Behind the Word” by Nina Collymore) and the tragically short lives of young people fated to become a statistic (“#LongLive” by Taylor Murry).

In the zines, students express their views on the social justice issues that define the time, encourage others to speak out against injustice and raise their collective voice for the good of all.

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