What if you could change kids’ lives by helping them express themselves through art? What if you discovered that art took a stronger hold of a kid than gangs, drugs or a violent homelife?
Today I want to introduce you to Jill Gurr, founder and president of Create Now!, and one of the most inspiring people I’ve met in a long time. Listening to her story of how she has helped to transform lives through art, dance, music, photography, film production, and creative writing may transform your life, as well.
Tell me what it was about the 1992 L.A. riots that turned you from a screenwriter to an activist?
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I volunteered with another organization that brought 1/2 day arts-and-crafts projects to all ages of troubled youth. We went to group homes, detention camps, homeless shelters, etc. I don’t have any children of my own and have always felt a need to nurture. When I saw all the hundreds of troubled children, it made my heart ache. I wanted to do something more powerful to help these kids.
After the riots, I realized that there was an even greater need for me to help. Since I loved screenwriting and had an idea for a screenplay about two rival gang members at the same detention camp, I spent quite some time trying to get my workshop set up at a number of juvenile detention facilities, only to be met with negativity and rejections. I finally met Wanda Patterson, the Art Director at a boys detention camp, who helped me get my Screenwriting Workshop started at Optimist Youth Homes. I spent several months developing a script with a group of teenage boys that were incarcerated for a variety of crimes. Not only did we option the script to producers, but several boys learned how to read and write through my program. Others wanted to go back to school or attend college and a tough Chicano gang leader had tattoos removed from his neck and hand.
I realized that I was on to something and I had another idea for a screenplay, so I set it up at a coed detention facility. I got the same results. I then met a woman named Erika Clarke and told her about my two workshops. I mentioned that there were probably lots of other people like me that wanted to make a difference by mentoring these troubled youth, but they didn’t know how. With all that I had learned, I told her that I could probably reach many more kids by helping others to mentor as well. It was just a thought that popped into my mind – nothing preconceived. Erika called me the following week and told me that her professor Leslie Stevens at the American Film Institute was giving me $5,000 to start a non-profit organization, and Create Now! was incorporated as a 501 (c)(3) in 1996.
How did you know the creative arts would be so healing to these kids?
As mentioned, I was already volunteering through an arts organization that used simple and quick arts-and-crafts projects to help these at-risk youth. These kids felt so excited and proud of making something that they could show to others. And I’ve personally been writing poems, stories and journals since I was 8 years old. I’ve always found writing to be incredibly therapeutic. When I founded the organization, it was originally called Write Now! and we focused on all types of creative writing. But as I worked with the kids, I realized that many of them were interested (and talented) in other areas, like music and visual arts. In 1999, I changed the name of the organization to Create Now! so we could include all types of art in our programs. There have been many research studies completed on art therapy and I’ve witnessed the positive effects of the arts on hundreds of troubled kids.
One of the ways you have helped your students tap into their own creative ability is to start with music or a television show they already know and love. Tell me how you take that interest and help them to develop something of their own.
When I did my first Screenwriting Workshop, I realized that most of these youth wouldn’t read a book, but they’d relish a screenplay of their favorite movie. So I brought them scripts from films that they loved. That’s one of the ways that they learned to read. When we start a new workshop, our mentors usually ask the kids what THEY want to do. For instance, one of our mentors taught a Sit-Com Writing Workshop. The kids all loved “That 70’s Show,” so they wrote an episode (which was actually quite good!). When the class ended, the kids decided to turn it into a play which they could share with everyone else at their detention facility. So everyone was able to participate. Some youth did wardrobes or set dressing; the girls got to participate which made it extra special since they’re normally segregated. I invited the creator of the show, Mark Brazill, to attend their performance and he brought several of their producers, writers and one of the stars, Wilmer Valderama. The kids really connected with them and they were invited to a taping of the show. One of the girls in that group has changed her life and is pursuing an acting career. I encourage our mentors to use popular media to get the kids’ attention, but to let each group of kids determine what they want their workshop to be. They might also decide to work on individual projects rather than a group one.
What were the books or movies that planted a seed in you?
“Slam” is an excellent book that was made into a movie, about a talented young man from the streets of Washington D.C. who’s an incredible poet. He gets sent to prison for selling pot and has to survive there by using his poetry. He falls in love with a mentor who teaches a poetry workshop and she introduces him to poetry slams, which are phenomenal experiences. The book and movie show how creative expression transforms lives.
The biggest impact that I’ve experienced were two movies that I worked on as a Script Supervisor (my career for 20 years before I founded Create Now!). One was “Menace II Society,” about life in South Central. it exposed me to what it’s like to be a young African-American, having to make a living the only way most of them know how: drug-dealing, and dodging the bullets, living in a constant state of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was shocked at how racist police officers could be. While I was naive at the time, I learned a lot from the experience.
Another film that I worked on was “My Family (Mi Familia).” The film itself was a learning experience, I’ll never forget when we were shooting in East L.A. on a week night. During the wee hours of the morning, there was an 8 year-old boy and his 11 year-old brother hanging out with the crew. I asked them “Don’t you have school tomorrow? Where are your parents? It’s 3 am!” The little one said, “I don’t know where my mother is and my father, he don’t give a f**k.” That really opened my eyes to why these kids are so damaged. These experiences are what inspired me to volunteer and then to found Create Now!
My ultimate goal is to bring spiritual enlightenment to these troubled kids. I’ve been giving their staff and individual kids copies of “The Secret” and the kids get it! This generation is a lot brighter and more plugged in then we give them credit for, including the disadvantaged youth in our communities. I thought that “Freedom Writers” was a great portrayal of the diversity of youth and the problems of racial tension they deal with in Los Angeles, as well as other key issues.
You said during your interview on NBC Nightly News, “No matter what I write, it cannot be as important as changing a child’s life.” I believe you. But you are also an artist yourself, and I would love to know what you, the artist, not the executive director, still want to create.
It’s been a challenge to put my own writing aside so that I can focus on Create Now! I have 16 original scripts and some of them are like my children. But I know that I haven’t abandoned them. I will get some of them made at some point, because I know they’re good. I’ve come very close to getting a few of them produced, too. However, I realize that everything has a timing and right now my priority is getting Create Now! further developed, and to also write my book. I’m working on a book called “Change Lives: Mentor,” which teaches people how to mentor at-risk youth. There are no guide books out there and this book excites me a lot, since it can impact millions of lives. Everyone can change a child’s life for the better, no matter where you live or what you do for a living. And our youth desperately need help. It’s estimated that half of our youth population in the U.S. – 17.6 million kids – are at-risk and need support. These kids represent our future. And many of them are teenage parents already. If we don’t change them while they’re young, then they become our burden forever, as do their children and their children’s children. So once I get the book out of the way and Create Now! expanded (we hope to grow nationally and then internationally in the future), then some of my pet scripts will be put back on the front burner – especially my family films.
Many of your students bring these skills back to their families and communities, and a number of them continue on in teaching and social work, not to mention into the arts. That must be a great feeling, to see this gift multiply.
It’s so gratifying and that’s what keeps me going. When I did my screenwriting workshops before I founded Create Now!, I had no idea if I made even a dent in these kids lives. There’s a high transition rate at the facilities we serve. But I had my group for 3 months and then it was over and I thought that was the end of it. Six years later, one of the girls in my workshop called me. Tawana had written poems and discovered through my class that she loved writing screenplays. I got her a computer and connected her with a TV writer as her mentor, since I was busy getting Create Now! started. But then Tawana suddenly vanished. Her parents told me she was in trouble with the law. I never expected to hear from her, until six years later she called me. She had spent months tracking me down to tell me that I’d changed her life. Tawana had gotten a job as a group home worker at a facility for mentally-challenged adults. She’d written several scripts and was doing great. She still is, and she told me that she owed it all to me. I’ve had a number of kids tell me that, and that’s my reward.
Another powerful story is the one of Darontay. He was in and out of jail since he was 11. I met him when he was 16 and in a detention camp for hitting someone over the head with a crowbar. He was menacing looking, but I could also see how bright he was. I offered him some opportunities to record his music. I introduced him to some producers that hired him as an intern on their gang-related film for Lionsgate. He auditioned and won a co-starring role and blew everyone off the screen – got nominated for “Best Supporting Actor in a DVD Movie.” Now he’s opened his own tattoo parlor and clothing store, and he’s raising two children and mentoring the kids in his neighborhood. That ripples down into the community and touches many many lives: friends, family members, neighbors, etc.
I hear there is a Create Now! newsletter as well as a webzine that showcases the work of Create Now! students. Links, please!
We’re currently redesigning our website, and the new one will be launched in April. In the meantime, if you go to our home page: www.createnow.org
You can get lots of information about Create Now!, including video clips. It’s very extensive.
Please sign up for our ezines. They come out bi-monthly and feature several of our current programs, as well as some of the kids’ work. By signing up for our mailing list at this link: http://www.createnow.org/sub_form.html
You’ll get the ezines and also notices of news and special events. We’ve got some great projects coming up this year.
If any of my readers are interested in volunteering for Create Now!, how can they get started? And if they are not in the Southern California area?
They can contact me at (213) 484-8500, or via email (which is the best way): firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll send them a Mentor Application and then arrange a meeting. Wherever they live in the Southern California region, we can match them with at-risk and high-risk youth in their neighborhoods. We give our mentors training and provide them with materials and resources for their workshops. We also arrange one-on-one mentoring and cultural excursions for the kids to attend all kinds of concerts and theatrical events. Create Now! is a bridge for the community to give to the most troubled youth in our society, by distributing materials and arranging opportunities for them
No matter where anyone lives in the United States, they can be matched as a mentor to one or more youth. I suggest that you go to this link, which is MENTOR: http://mentoring.org/
When you plug in your zip code, it automatically refers you to mentoring organizations in your particular community. You can also find mentees through your local schools, churches and temples, as well as through local community organizations. Cyber Mentoring is also valuable, where an organization will match you with a child in another location and through email and other Internet features like Chat Rooms and Message Forums, you can communicate regularly with a youth.
The most important thing to remember as a mentor is to be consistent. Most of these kids have been let down by adults all their lives. 25 million children in our country don’t have a father, which is one of the greatest travesties of our time… especially for young males. If you make a commitment to mentor a child, you MUST keep it! You can’t flake out. It will probably take them some time to trust you and to know that you’re going to keep your word and keep returning to see them. They’ll look forward to your visits and phone calls, and if you drop them or don’t come through, then you’ll do more damage then good.
There are millions of children that need our help, and if you change one child’s life, you’ve helped improve our world… and yours! The benefits are fantastic.
Jill, thanks so much for your time and for the inspiring woman you are! And thank you to the remarkable Hillary Carlip for introducing us!