Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.

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Interview with Rob Levit

EM: You are the founder of Creating Communities, an organization that mentors at-risk youth and adults by teaching “life skills through the arts.” Can you tell us a little bit about your organization?

RL: Many years ago I was performing at a Title I elementary school, in other words, a school in a low-income area. One of the activities I did during the school-wide assembly was bring students up to scat sing the blues with my jazz trio. On that particular morning, an eager boy was waving his hands in the front row to come up and so I called him. Behind him were his teachers and they were sort of waving me off as if to say “don’t bring that kid up there!” Alas, it was too late.

As the music kicked in, with my assistance, the boy began to scat sing beautifully and soulfully! The audience cheered and his teachers were in shock. After the assembly, the principal rushed up to me and said “that child has a terrible stutter and his teachers were worried he would fail.” At that moment, I had an epiphany – how many opportunities for personal growth do children and adults miss because their teachers and mentors don’t have the skill set or creative imagination to see possibilities and potential in those they work with?

Unfortunately, it is far too many. Don’t get me wrong – these were excellent teachers – but they were conditioned by their own perceptions, fears and challenges, as we all are. After I left the school, I began to have a nagging feeling, or better yet a prompting. I wondered how many lives could be positively impacted if we stopped teaching kids and adults and instead collaborated and partnered with them to reveal their otherwise hidden and untapped gifts? That was really the genesis of Creating Communities.

It would be many years later that I finally had the creative courage to put a structure and plan around my desire to make a difference through the arts. Almost ten years later, we have worked with hundreds and hundreds of kids and adults, connecting them with their own innate abilities. So much of education is learning to see past our own inability to understand the latent potential in people and frankly, in ourselves.

EM: What do you mean by “life skills”?

RL: Think about what all successful creative people need to do – design, collaborate, communicate intent, persist, visualize and overcome blocks for starters. Each of our Creating Communities programs gently offers participants the opportunities to discover and engage in their own creative work.

For example, during our summer Arts Mentorship Academy, sixty youth of all ages gather for five days of intensive dance, visual art, creative writing, world drumming and singing along with mentoring and cultural enrichment activities. Here they are challenged to sit with kids they wouldn’t normally choose to sit with, clean up messes they didn’t make and start and finish several projects in a week that a couple of hundred family and community members will watch on closing day.

In my mind and practice, those are some good life skills to acquire! There is so much emphasis on individual achievement but when you are truly “creating communities” the life skills acquired are about trusting each other, depending on each other and pushing each other in ways that we didn’t know we were capable of. In many ways, it’s an uncommon message in our current “there’s an app for that” world. We ask our kids to look past “likes” and “dislikes” and find the meaning on the other side of their limits.

EM: How can the arts teach life skills?

RL: Simple – when we do, we learn. When our mouths sing beautiful melodies, when our hands create new paintings and sculptures, when we move with each other in sync to a cool rhythm, our entire sensory system becomes engaged in learning – learning through direct experience.

Too often, we start with “book learning” and “butts in seats.” That’s all well and good, and at the same time it’s great to just dive head long into experiences not knowing what the results will look like. We want students to recognize great work as it emerges from them. There’s not necessarily a template to follow to get there. To me, that’s more “life-like” than a cerebral study of the arts. I mean, how many lectures on teamwork and collaboration can kids hear?

When we get them playing African drums and singing within a half hour of meeting each other, the life lessons become self-evident. You can see the look on the face of a child who in rehearsal jumps higher than ever before, sings a solo in front of the group or reads a heart-felt poem in front of strangers. It’s priceless. So, a major part of the Creating Communities Way is through embodied and multi-sensory learning – thinking is awesome, but at some point you have to do stuff to move your life along. The kids take positive risks and we are there to support them.

EM: Do you have an anecdote about someone who was helped via the mentoring you provide?

RL: Wow, so many anecdotes! Here are a few –

* Last summer, we had an autistic youth at the Arts Mentorship Academy. At the end of the week one of our mentors told me that the youth’s guardians approached her at the final reception and asked, “What did you all do to our child?” She asked, “What do you mean?” Basically they answered, “He’s actually talking to us!” They were absolutely delighted and had no idea that their own child could sing, dance and speak on stage.

* One of my students has been with Creating Communities since middle school and she’s now in her early twenties. She’s seen some hard times in life, harder than most of us will ever understand, and she still attends virtually all of our programs and serves as a support staff and mentor to the young kids. The art and the mentoring provide her with “scaffolding” for her sometimes chaotic family situation. The programs bring her comfort because she can drop all the life baggage, leave it at the door and get engaged in activities that generate personal meaning.

* When we had our “Life Skills Through The Arts” Program at a drug addiction facility a few years ago, one of the patients was brought in with ankle cuffs and handcuffs. He was in sad shape. I was worried about reaching him in the group session. At the time, I was teaching “Rob-chi” my very bad yet simple version of meditative movement.  I just wanted the patients to be in their bodies again and appreciate the joy of movement and connection and so they changed the practice from “Rob-chi” to “Bill-chi” or “Sue-chi” for example. Later I was told by one of the main staff members that the young man who had been brought in via hand and ankle cuffs was spotted doing his own “chi” in the mornings before anyone was around. That feeling of being there, assisting someone to wake up to their own innate self-healing and self-learning potential, that’s what it’s all about.

EM: What’s your sense of why mentoring helps when it comes to emotional and mental distress?

RL: There are some cardinal rules to being a great mentor. The first one is to listen. How many kids are actually listened to? We so badly want to fix or correct a “troubled” or challenging kid without really, really just being there for them. We have to stop the tendency to want to speak or lecture. 

So, even before listening actually, we need to create an atmosphere of safety. Why would a kid share their fears and pain with us when they don’t feel safe? We can’t be afraid to show emotion, either. It’s OK to let kids know that when they hurt, you hurt and when they feel joy, you feel joy. We are taught to be at arm’s length from those we serve, but how then does that build trust? Of course, we keep our professional composure and at the same time we need to meet kids at the level that they can feel comfortable sharing. So many kids, especially in the field that I am in, lack consistent adults who care.   

I’ll close with this – recently a kid I know was thrown out of the classroom at a school I visit. He started to have a meltdown and before I knew it administrators were called as well as the resource officer. Fortunately, they did a great job speaking with the student and he was admitted back into class. Later, I was able to speak with the student – creating safety, listening and empathizing. The student shared his deep anger over the fighting and conflict between the parents. Finally, when the moment was right, I asked, “What’s underneath the anger?” The student said “Sadness.” See, kids are smart and they are self-aware! We just have to create the opportunity and facilitate their growth and awareness.

Before we judge them as aggressive, angry or bad, have we done all we can do to reach them? Or, are we projecting what we think they are right on to them? It is imperative to stay open!

Have we created opportunities to learn, grow and succeed in a way that resonates with their natural abilities? I think as educators, we have a long way to go. A large part of it is understanding our own feelings and emotions and not being so quick to shove them aside. We live in a “fix it” culture but as M. Scott Peck said in The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Instead of resisting it, let’s get to know it, understand it and create within it.

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Rob Levit is a multi-award winning creative artist and musician, nonprofit director and speaker on creativity living in Annapolis, Maryland. He is a 2013 Innovator of the Year recipient from the Maryland Daily Record and 2011 Martin Luther King Peace Maker Award recipient for his work with youth and adults using the arts as a path to build life skills. For more information, visit www.creativityexpert.com and www.creatingcommunities.net.

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at ericmaisel@hotmail.com, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

http://ericmaisel.com/interview-series/

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