This article is cross-posted from Ayodele Nzinga’s blog. Literacy through the Arts is practiced at The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater Day Camp, in West Oakland CA, where participants are offered free instruction in theater as a summer enrichment program. The program was designed by Dr. A. Nzinga, MFA, PhD and is ran in partnership with The Prescott Joseph Center For Community Enhancement and the University of California at Berkeley School of Education. 

Mentoring is difficult, rewarding, and often extremely frustrating. It is an activity in which you will have to be able to take losses and stay the course. You may lose as many as you save and that can be heartbreaking. But if you can point to one and say you helped them to become who they wanted to be, then you have done something phenomenal. Sometimes the only thing between failure and potential is encouragement, and often that is all it takes: someone who says “I believe you can.”

I have always had teachers, although I did not always recognize them as teachers at the time. I never wanted to be a teacher and it took a lot of living for me to understand that I could be a role model. I mentor others. Not just youth, not just in organized programs, but as a matter of course, I try to pass on what I have learned about living the life you desire. I am surprised by how much I value the ability to help others become who they dream of being.

I have meditated on it, gleaned it from living, written about it, and I practice mentorship in all of my artistic practices. I value the many teachers I have found my way to, and credit them as being the foundation of living a life in which I feel I have found my purpose. Intertwined in that purpose is the philosophy of training your replacement. I work in a continuum and it is my duty to facilitate its continuity. I am from an oral culture that values the transmission of knowledge to younger generations.

I have found that the best philosophies can be overshadowed by a teacher’s action – be that teacher an educator, an older sibling, a parent, or a peer. We learn what people do by listening to what they say. A good mentor takes the time to make sure that they are teaching what they have at least a commitment to mastering, not simply stating facts they themselves need to learn. We also learn best from those who respect us as opposed to those who feel sorry for us or above us.

Being hard to run off is a good trait. Being a designated cheerleader requires patience, empathy, and humility. Teaching by example, remembering the places in which you fell short, needed support, or failed, and being willing to share them are also traits necessary in a mentor.

A good mentor resembles an extraordinary teacher. The best teacher is a good learner who is willing to learn how to best serve others by becoming aware of what it is others want for themselves. Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all; it works best tailored for individuals.

I think my practice Literacy through the Arts is an example of a mentoring program that has found its way to successful mentoring. The work allows me to build relationships with participants and their families that last for years. I think the best mentoring/teaching happens in well-developed relationships. My practice uses theater production as a method of conveying life skills, teaching critical literacy, and seeding it while helping students identify their own passions in life.

With theater as a modality, we work on learning how to “act” in life and on-stage. It’s a program in which mentoring begets mentors as participants become immersed in learning to act on-stage. As a by-product, they become active agents in all the environments they travel. They enjoy and value learning, so they bring their friends to camp, take great pride in sharing what they learn, and take the language and concepts away with them to their homes, schools, and communities.

Students grow another lens with which to view the world. In this view they are able, capable, and expected to do great things. This is often a counter to narratives in spaces like public schools.

A core element in my practice is respecting what participants already know: their home cultures, what it is they want to learn, and what they have to contribute to our mutual learning. My practice is one of several that uses disciplinary instruction as a springboard into relationships with communities they wish to influence.

I stress the importance of these out-of-school spaces in marginalized communities and their importance in the cultural maintenance, development of multiple literacies, and facilitation of active, socially engaged community members.

As public schools become increasing less adept at dealing with the educational needs of marginalized youth, the need for spaces in community that offer culturally competent pedagogies that encourage critical engagement with the public sphere and the potential for self-directed growth are of even greater importance.

For more information about the camp or Literacy through the Arts contact:


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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