In this interview, Naima Thompson, founder of Necessary Arts, provides an insight into the programme and explains her various projects that help unprivileged children in countries such as Kenya.
So to start with, what is your motto?
T: Stimulating Minds through Artistic Expression.
What is Necessary Arts?
T: Necessary Arts was born out of a need to bring children in Harlem off the street and into a safe environment to express themselves. That started in New York around, I want to say 1996, and I worked at there for a while and in 2001. I started to wonder what was happening in Trinidad with my own people and I wanted to take the program home. So I left New York after eleven years and went to Trinidad and I opened up Necessary Arts as an NGO and started to bring in street kids and kids in orphanages to give them an opportunity to express themselves. What I wanted to do was bring them into an environment where they were able to mix with mainstream children who came from privileged homes, who came from middle class backgrounds, so that they can feel included. Through that experience we tackled social issues through drama. So Necessary Arts is all about suggesting that through the arts we can empower and stimulate young people to become strong minded individuals.
What drove you to start this school?
T: You know one of my students, when he was fourteen, he was executed in New York City, in Harlem. At the time, in the 90’s, there was a lot of street violence and gang related violence and the population of kids that I was working with as a teacher, at the time, were coming from what we call the projects which was a certain type of housing development and one of my students was literally executed on Madison Avenue, shot in the head by another teenager his age. They were both about 13-14 years old. And at the time I was working at a performing arts school in Harlem and I decided that no more of my students will go through this, I didn’t want that. So, I started to think of what could I do to contribute to making a change in a child’s life outside of the regular school day and so Necessary Arts was born and that is what really motivated me to get it going.
So what do you do in Necessary Arts?
T: In Necessary Arts, we look at different techniques of acting. In Trinidad, where it is most prominent, we focus on all of the arts; we do fine art, we do dance, we do music. Our national instrument is the steel pan, so we do music through the pan and we also do a lot of singing. Most importantly, we combine all of these art forms and we bring them into a performance piece that deals with a particular social issue. So we are big on social justice and raising awareness of certain issues. If I go to Kenya with Necessary Arts, we always have a component that deals with social justice. Here, in Dubai, I’ve registered the NGO with the International Humanitarian City, which is huge for us. It allows us to raise funds, work legitimately in Dubai and to offer these classes to privileged children. With the funding that they use to pay to come to the course, we’re able to pay for children to go to school, let’s say in Kenya. I’m opening that up to Tanzania. Come this summer, I’m going to start doing some work in Tanzania also. So Necessary Arts is really a humanitarian project and for me personally, as the founder, my hope is that every child that comes through Necessary Arts becomes aware and is affected by the issues of humanity and can, as they get older, look to support humanity in one way or another, whether it’s financial or actual programmes that they set up. I have a student named Tatiana Butler, who was one of the first students at Necessary Arts, back in New York, and now she’s probably about 30, and she really pushes the same concept through her own programme now.
Tell us more about your International Outreach program?
T: The dream of the Outreach Programme started in Trinidad, when I would go into the underprivileged communities in my country which also has a lot of gun violence and I started bringing kids out of the ghetto. It was interesting because many of them who would come out of these impoverished areas would come with guns and I would have to tell them, “Guys, you can’t come into my building with your gun”, but the problem was they could not come out. That really struck me and it took me back to New York when my student was actually killed and I said you know what, I want to do an outreach into countries like Africa, India, even China. I’ve been to China and I’ve worked with kids in China also. I think what it is for me is that the outreach has to be able to get to kids who lack opportunity, whose opportunity seem to be swamped in crime or a sense of defeat because they don’t have an opportunity for education. So the Outreach Programme strives to do two things- one, keep kids in school, and two, give kids a voice to express themselves. That is what the Outreach Programme is all about. And right now, we’re in five different sites in Kenya, that we’re very proud of, and in particular, there’s an organization called Jai Ho with forty-three children. There’s an orphanage in a slum area called Pipeline with forty-three children run by a woman, who started this with her husband, but the husband died and now she’s on her own. So Necessary Arts is committed to making sure that all of those children get a secondary school education and that we visit that home at least three times a year to bring our program to them. So that is what the Outreach Programme strives to make sure that these children that we are in touch with receive a secondary school education and that’s huge for us. That’s what most of our fund raising is going to be about. And the other thing is that these students have a voice and can express themselves. That is the “Reach the Unreachable” programme.
How do you spread awareness about such issues?
T: Well, it’s rough right now because it’s difficult to do work without funding, it really is. What really frightens me is that I’m going to fail at raising enough funds to get this work out there and to bring attention to it. I do have a website, that I wish I can find somebody to donate their time and expertise to get this website at a place where it’s marketable and it can stand with other strong websites. Right now, I’m sorry but it just doesn’t. The social media aspect of Necessary Arts is very weak, because it’s practically a one woman show. I can’t do everything, I don’t have the skills to do everything, but I try my best. So, most of all, what I’m looking for, are people to donate their time and expertise. Money will come, but time and expertise from people who have the skillset to push us forward through social media is something that I am looking for urgently, even if it’s young people who have these skills and wanted to maybe build their portfolio. That’s what I’d like to get now. This year, that’s my focus- where do I get that person who understands what we want to do and is willing to commit their time and expertise.
If you wanted the world to hear one thing about Necessary Arts what would it be?
T: That question was asked of me in an interview on Tuesday, by What’s On, and my response is always going to be that if Necessary Arts can have an impact on a young person to understand humanity, because we are losing the war on humanity, we’re losing it as a global entity. It’s very saddening to me that there’s so much destruction and so much disregard for human life and I want Necessary Arts to have an impact on young people, who have the future of this world in their hands. I want young people to be compassionate, to be kind, to care about the underprivileged, to care about the voiceless, to recognize that there are so many children in the world that do not have what they have and to perhaps begin building a life that is going to afford them the opportunity to continue the work, which is why one of my proudest achievements is Tatiana Butler, to know that that child, whom I’ve been working with since she was twelve today runs her own programme and looks out for the humanity of others.
If you want to check out the Necessary Arts website, you can find it here. All of Ms. Thompson’s students, including me, are extremely proud of her outreach, and hope to help this programme in whatever way we can!