MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Akuyoe Graham has hundreds of children.
All of them are considered at-risk youths. Some are in juvenile hall, probation camps or jail, and some are underserved. Some are boys, some are girls, some are homeless while others feel unworthy or lost.
Who they are and what they did or didn’t do to find themselves in their current situation doesn’t matter to the award-winning actor, playwright, author and educator. What does matter to Graham is how she can help each and every one of her children find their way back to themselves through her nonprofit program called Spirit Awakening.
Spirit Awakening, founded by Graham in 1995, is an arts-based organization that mentors underserved and incarcerated youth throughout Los Angeles County. A grantee of the California Wellness Foundation, the organization currently works with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, County Office of Education and the county Arts Department.
One of the first agencies to offer trauma-informed arts programs to neglected and abused children in the juvenile system, Spirit Awakening’s arts programs are currently in 11 schools and facilities in Los Angeles. Graham, who is originally from Ghana, said there are plans to increase the number with 10 more high schools in the next two years.
The program has been teaching ‘the unheard’ the power of positive and productive expression using the tools of meditation, self-reflection, creative writing, mentorship, service, improvisation, leadership training and visual arts conducted by Graham’s husband, Masauso Chiumya, an artist from Zambia. All of the tools are used to help underserved youth build character and raise their self-esteem.
During her early years, Graham, a regal beauty with expressive eyes and a warm smile, had her own issues. She, too, struggled with self-esteem because of her dark skin, full lips, and short hair.
“I came to my own spirituality through Spirit Awakening,” said Graham, who did so by performing her autobiographical show by the same name for at-risk and incarcerated child detainees as well as high school students. By expressing herself, she inspires her kids.
The show led to the Spirit Awakening Foundation, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year while continuing to help thousands of at-risk youth transform their lives through its various therapeutic programs. Graham said some of the conversations go deep and some of the writings are heart-wrenching but in the end enlightening and healing.
Nathaniel Tillett, 18, is a current Spirit Awakening student who has been a part of the program for two years. Without it, he said he’s not sure which way his life would have turned.
“They completely altered my life through writing and experience,” Tillett said. “They helped me become a successful college student (Santa Monica College). I’m studying psychology because I want to help people. That’s a passion of mine.”
Tillett was part of a small group of students Spirit Awakening took to Ghana to participate in its “Breaking the Chains – Never Again” service trip commemorating the 400-year remembrance of the Atlantic Slave Trade. He has nothing but praise for Graham.
“She is an intelligent, caring and wonderful person who goes out of her way to help,” he said. “She has a heart for everyone she meets. She has love for you and it’s genuine.”
In 2018, Spirit Awakening, a recipient of a number of prestigious recognitions, awards and accolades, was named best nonprofit in Santa Monica.
Graham said it was like “getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
She appreciates that Spirit Awakening is being recognized for its importance.
“The new Jim Crow is the incarceration of black and brown children,” said Graham, who was born a tribal princess in Africa and grew up in London before coming to America. “That’s why truth and justice are important to me. Children are important to me. Incarcerating people is not sustainable. They are no better off than before incarceration.”
Having worked with children as young as 12 and as old as 19, Graham said “redemption and compassion matter,” especially for children that have been hurt and broken. She refrains from calling them juveniles because of its negative connotation. Instead, she calls them “children” or “child detainees.”
Over the years Graham brought Spirit Awakening to a number of child detainee facilities including the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, Camp Afflerbaugh and Camp Scott, a barbed-wire fenced probation facility for girls, located in Santa Clarita.
Through the storytelling, writing and improvisational exercises, she said probation officers, teachers and counselors began to notice a difference in the kids — even the ones who were traumatized.
“When these children are arrested, the process is intense,” Graham said. “They go through juvenile hall, or they can be released or they can be sentenced to a youth authority or prison. That’s intense. These are young girls. The idea that 16-year-old girls would never be able to go to the beach just didn’t sit well with me. I freaked out thinking about it. I’ve seen two girls given 50-plus years.”
When she first started the program 25 years ago, Graham said no one thought to bring “mindfulness” to an at-risk population.
“Some ridiculed me,” Graham said. “Some thought it was touchy-feely until they saw the response of the children. This is another way for us to give these children a chance to discover who they are.”
Graham acknowledged that the kids aren’t the only ones benefitting from the program. So does she.
“I needed to be part of something meaningful,” Graham said. “As they grow, I grow as well. I get back so much. The children have grown my circle of love. It has given me deeper meaning in my life.”
Graham, whose presence fills a room, believes there is always a place for forgiveness.
“We have to show the kids that we care and that we are not afraid to be authentic and real with them,” she said. “Kids can see when you’re not real. Turn it around and love these children until they can love themselves.”
On Nov. 8, Spirit Awakening will present “Voices of the Unheard/Freedom” at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s the organization’s annual celebration of the written and spoken word of child detainees in the juvenile justice system.
Organization Name: Spirit Awakening Foundation
Leader: Akuyoe Graham
Title: Founder and Executive Director
By Darlene Donloe