Meet the cast of CAT'S Got Talent: Hilda Herrera, John Dalmacio, Keyshawn Washington, Ivanni Turner, Jason Lowe, Cheky Cervantes, and Josh Bakerkelley.
I'm speechless. I have been searching for the words for this post for the last day, and I just can't seem to find them. You see, I knew CAT'S Got Talent was going to be something special; I didn't expect it to move me to tears. Especially on the first day.
When I first dreamt CAT'S Got Talent up, I hoped to be the wacky arts guy that helped a small group of seniors shine a light on the talents of their peers. I knew I could do that. It is simple and straightforward: put out a call, get a cast, produce a show, have fun. Done!
I also knew as a result of producing a show some transferrable skills in event production would be built along the way. I could leverage my network to find some entry level jobs for these students in event production as greeters, at the registration table, helping with set up, etc. Thus, CAT'S Got Talent would also be a fun, engaging workforce development program.
Well, yes, it is those things, but after our first class on Wednesday, it is also so much more.
CAT'S Got Talent is a game changer. Look at that photo. Really look at it. Each one of those seniors is a person of color. Each one of those seniors has a talent. Each one of those seniors is making their community(ies) a more creative place. And each one of those seniors matters.
Look at them, read their names, and remember them. Always remember them.
Our first session was dedicated to three things: building the classroom environment, sharing our talents, and filming a pitch video.
The first part of the session started widening my eyes to the possibilities in store. I shared with the seniors how the class will be run: everything is co-taught; everything. It is important to me as a white male working alongside communities of color to always have another perspective present in the educational design. For this course, Hilda Herrera, their peer, is co-teaching with me. Additionally, I am bringing in five other teaching artists (almost all women of color) to hone their skills. This is revolutionary, even though it shouldn't be.
Then, I shared the guiding quote for CAT'S Got Talent, which comes from Martin Luther King Jr, "The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists." I spoke about the stories that get told and distributed about our communities through mass media, about how they are for profit and violence, greed, and hate sell. I spoke about the ever growing extremism the world over. I spoke about our responsibility to reframe our narratives and tell the stories that MATTER TO US. This doesn't mean candy coating problems; it means telling them in ways where our neighbors shine. It is a challenge only creative extremists can solve.
We also did an exercise where we set our collective rights and responsibilities, so we can ensure an environment where all thrive and all are heard and seen. It's a simple exercise that often grounds environment in behavior, which makes enforcement of expectations more shared.
As usual, the students added "the right to be respected" to the list. Respect is something I have learned is incredibly culturally specific. And it is best when viewed through the lens of behavior. So I asked the students, "How do you know when you are respected? What are people doing?" Silence fell across everyone.
I expected this. It happens every time I ask the question, so I followed up with, "How do you know when you are disrespected?" Everyone had an answer.
It was then I made the connection for these seniors between mainstream narratives and the ways in which they impact our lives consciously, unconsciously, and subconsciously. I said, "Look. This is why reframing our narratives, finding ways to showcase talents, and distributing our story is so crucial: you were unable to tell me what respect is but you can tell me what disrespect is. Think about that for a moment."
Understanding of what these seniors are in for washed across their faces. They got it with that one example, and I know I got a little teary.
And so I ask you again to look at these seniors. Get to know their names. And remember them. They are destined for great things.
We then had a talent showcase. Each senior had to get up in front of their peers and present their talent. At first, everyone was nervous. They all knew (or should have known) that this was coming. I did in fact inform them of such when I welcomed them in to the class. Still, some came underprepared (or at least seemed like it.)
Keyshawn was first up. "I just wanna get this over," he said. So he sauntered up to the front of the group to present his talent.
Now, I have said that talents are more than just the visual, literary, and performing arts. Talent is everywhere, and yet here we were on a stage with lights bearing down on us making all seem as if it were a performance. And it kind of is.
But then Keyshawn shared his talent: one year ago Keyshawn didn't know how to swim. Now, he is a lifeguard. He shared his story under those lights and in front of his peers, and he beamed brighter than the lights. He was proud of that huge accomplishment, a true testament of talent. I was proud. Incredibly proud. While he thought he came unprepared, he presented exactly what was asked of him.
All the other students got up there in the spotlight and shared their talents. Ivanni read a poem about love. John and Josh shared their drawings and sketches. Jason sang the National Anthem. Cheky showed us her photos. And Hilda played the ukelele. I even got up there and did a reading nervous as all hell.
After everyone showcased their talent, we brought the chairs back into a circle and shared some final thoughts. Hilda, being the incredible leader she is, complemented each of her peers for being fearless and sharing what they love in front of each other. Bonding clearing is happening. Again, I was teary.
Again, look at these seniors. Know their names. Remember them. You will definitely be seeing more.
Finally, the talented Karrie Myers Taylor came to film our IndieGogo campaign video. (Yeah, I know I'm getting the video done late, but it will be done and up on TUESDAY!!) During the interview she asked me (and I am paraphrasing here), "Why are you so committed to creating platforms for others to shine? Specifically, you mentioned that you wanted to use your privilege as a white guy to promote the voices and talents of people of color. Why?"
Well...my answer is simple: a good, kind-hearted, incredible man literally saved my life when I came out in college even though I was kinda an asshole to him when we first met. His name is Stacey Danner. He grew up in North Minneapolis and founded an organization called Commitment to Diversity at the university because the year before I got there crosses were burnt on the front lawn of a house where African American students lived. He saved my life, plain and simple. And I am returning that debt. I cried as I recounted the tale on camera.
Again, I ask you to look at these seniors. Please remember them and their names. They are the stars of CAT'S Got Talent. Not me. I am just a vehicle and a platform. It is them that matter. And they are destined for great things.
(And obviously I found my words. Thanks to them.)