Please welcome Malika Whitley to the stage under the #CCIspotlight. Malika is the founder and executive director of ChopArt. She's a 2017 Civic Women's Fellow and the 2015 (inaugural!) A3C Action winner. Malika's work stretches beyond Atlanta to, well.... we'll let you read about it yourself. Check out Malika's story!
Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I am an ATLien, proudly bred by the SWATS and Eastside. My father was a revolutionary, my mother is hyper-adaptive, and my sisters are master nurturers. I hope to reflect the best parts of their characters in the process of being an example to the youth I have the honor of meeting through ChopArt. My inspiration for this work is the belief that no one has the right to take up space in this Universe without the intent of making it better. Sometimes the tools to make it better come from a deep empathy birthed from our own traumas. Homelessness and everything experienced through it has given me the responsibility to dedicate myself to the well being of the thousands of homeless youth in our city and millions around the world. The first hand discovery of how little people "see" homeless youth and how damaging that is absolutely requires thorough and dedicated attention.
The passion for this work came from my experience, but the willingness to formalize it came from watching the brilliant women around me change the world every day. I've been blessed to have wonderful mentors who taught me how to make decisions, believe in myself, and be a leader. From that, an incredible team of people has believed in this vision and made it possible. They've stayed up late nights, called their friends, and poured into our teens. It's tough but necessary work that I'm so honored to be a part of.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
ChopArt is a multidisciplinary Arts organization specifically for homeless youth. We provide dignity, community, and opportunity to middle and high school aged youth experiencing homelessness through multidisciplinary arts immersion and mentorship. Our current and upcoming programs are in Atlanta, New Orleans, Accra, and Hyderabad. We've had the pleasure of serving over 7,000 youth around the world this year. This unfortunately doesn't make a dent in the 3,300 homeless youth in Atlanta each night or the 100 million homeless youth worldwide. We're doing everything we can to make sure the youth we have the capacity to serve feel seen and protected through the insulation of mentors and creativity. ChopArt does that by using the arts as a tool for risk intervention and trauma recovery.
ChopArt meets our mission in two ways: in-shelter programming and summer camps. In-shelter programming is a year around service provided to homeless shelters around Atlanta. The service includes weekly sessions led by volunteers and dedicated shelter leads, art shows and presentations, field-trips, and impact assessment. The in-shelter service allows us to track impact over time and build the relationships with our teens necessary to make interventions for the risks associated with youth homelessness such as suicide, depression, drug abuse, gang violence, and sex trafficking. In-shelter programs provides ongoing Arts education with curated Arts projects designed for public display, and the opportunity for our teens to design their own Arts programming. That may include photography, poetry, painting, dance, music, theater, or other types of disciplines.
Our summer camps are located in Georgia, USA; India; and Ghana. Camp Envision is located in Georgia and is a 7-day overnight performing arts summer camp for 100 homeless youth ages 10-18. This is the only Arts summer camp specifically for homeless minors in the nation. Our campers come from unaccompanied and accompanied homeless backgrounds from Atlanta, New Orleans, and sometimes Charlotte. Young Leaders Camp is located in Hyderabad, India and is a 15-day residential camp for up to 10,000 teens. In partnership with Kaarmic Education Services, Young Leaders' Camp acts as an arts leadership intensive purposed to provide an intervention for school drop out rates. Our youth in India are apart of the SWEARO community and rely on the Telangana government to access housing, food, and education. We were running into the problem of students dropping out during the summer months when they would go back to their villages and have to fill in for the financial burden on the family through child labor, marriage, or sex trafficking. This camp reduces the amount of time at home to lessen that burden on the families and increase retention rates in school. Young Achievers Ghana is an organization in Accra, Ghana started and run by teenage girls incorporating leadership into their everyday life to avoid child marriage. In partnership with Young Achievers Ghana, our upcoming summer camp is a day camp model providing arts leadership through the performing arts.
We have seen this program make great impact on the teens we serve and the community around them. The community is able to gain more information on youth homelessness to empower them to participate in advocacy on behalf of our teens. They've also received the opportunity to be a guiding light for our teens through volunteerism. Our teens have been able to access consistent mentors dedicated to their well being and growth. Through this program we have found that a program like ChopArt increases the self efficacy of teens experiencing homelessness, makes them more goal oriented, increases their capacity to trust themselves and others, and reduces the recovery time for anger, insecurity, and depression.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?
Atlanta is a wonderful city full of creativity and potential. I think the city could make huge strides in ending homelessness if it was more of a priority for our leaders in policy, funding, and governance. We currently have no emergency shelters for homeless minors in the metro Atlanta area. That means there's no place a homeless minor can walk off the street and access a bed. With the heightened risks for homeless minors, it should be at the top of the list to create spaces to ensure their safety. We are able to make great strides with our programs in Hyderabad because of the support received from the government agencies that make the well being of our teens a top priority. I would love to see ChopArt and other youth homeless services providers in Atlanta make a dent in the problem with comparable financial and infrastructure support from our city.
How has the Center for Civic Innovation supported you in your work?
The Center has been amazing and a true right hand to our success over the last few years. We've received ongoing training from the leadership including pitch, business development, and access to self care. They've also put us in rooms with people able to support our work which has expanded our networks and capacity to sustain the programming. Most importantly, CCI has been a champion for our work, providing options and perspective that we would've been lost without. Trying to hold the world on your shoulders gets tiring and frustrating. Organizations like CCI don't lecture you to death, but come along side you on the journey to ease the burden and build stronger foundations. They are certainly playing a major part in making sure so many important organizations have what they need to be successful.
What advice do you have for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?
I would advise new social entrepreneurs to ground themselves in their purpose. This is not simple work and also comes with criticism and a lack of outward appreciation. If you are not clear on why you are doing the work, you'll be bound to get swept up in the distractions around you. I would also say to surround themselves with people smarter than them and who they wouldn't mind working for. You won't know everything and that's completely fine. You shouldn't know it all or put the pressure on yourself to know it all. Get yourself a strong, sharp, and dependable team and run hard towards your goal together. The last thing I'd advise is to get used to failing and give yourself a break for it. Some days will just seem impossible...some weeks will feel impossible. You'll find the end of your rope at some point and you'll be disappointed by others. This all sucks, but is necessary to make you resilient enough to be the leader you need to be for success.
Malika, you're a powerhouse and an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story with us!
Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work all throughout the city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week from now until the end of the year. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.