Guerilla Poets helps at-risk teens use art, poetry to heal

Emilee Geist

Poet and visual artist Shane Manier teaches an art workshop at Brookhill Community Resource Center in Charlotte. Manier founded Guerilla Poets, an outreach group that uses the healing power of art and poetry to help kids, teens and adults grapple with difficult emotions. The group holds workshops in shelters, schools, […]

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Poet and visual artist Shane Manier teaches an art workshop at Brookhill Community Resource Center in Charlotte. Manier founded Guerilla Poets, an outreach group that uses the healing power of art and poetry to help kids, teens and adults grapple with difficult emotions. The group holds workshops in shelters, schools, and at nonprofit agencies across the Charlotte area.

Courtesy of Brookhill Community Resource Center

It was 2012, and poet Shane Manier was reading one of her poems aloud in a Lincolnton coffee shop. The title: “Sitting Beside Death on the Fence with a Pack of Cigarettes.”

What happened next led the Charlotte-area poet and visual artist to found Guerilla Poets, a nonprofit community outreach organization.

“This elderly man came up to me,” she said. “He wrapped his arms around me and started crying. He said, ‘I had planned on going home and taking my own life. But I want you to know that because of that poem, I’m not going to do it.’ I was on fire for it (poetry) after that.”

Manier realized that poetry can save lives, especially if she could reach people who wouldn’t normally listen to poetry. She formed Guerilla Poets with the help of three other poets. Initially, the Charlotte-based group performed flash mob poetry in the streets with the intent of making it accessible to all. But when Guerilla Poets was bombarded with requests to perform and teach in schools and shelters, they shifted the mission to include places where people have little access to art.

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Students from TYM Inc. (Transforming Youth Movement) participate in a Guerilla Poets workshop at Charlotte Art League. Staff from Guerilla Poets led the group through an art workshop that focused on anger management. Tarik Kiley

Healing power of the arts

Guerilla Poets’ mission: to use the healing power of the arts to help others. The group now holds art and poetry programs in shelters, schools, and at nonprofit agencies across the Charlotte region, helping kids and adults process difficult emotions. Some of the places they’ve taken their programs include Commonwealth High School, Time Out Youth, and The Relatives.

The organization has 11 active members who teach classes and help with administrative work. Manier, 36, serves as the executive director and reports to a board.

In many cases, they’re working with teens who face trauma, behavioral and emotional issues, attend alternative schools, and/or live in foster homes, juvenile detention centers or crisis centers.

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Guerilla Poets held an art workshop for students from TYM Inc. (Transforming Youth Movement) at the West Boulevard library branch in July 2019. Guerilla Poets’ workshops help kids, teens and adults use art to work through difficult emotions and experiences. Shane Manier

Taking back control

Classes focus on personal development and rewriting a narrative the teens may not completely understand. The activities help the students examine how they’ve been treated and what they can do to take back control.

“It’s really about freeing them from this concept of themselves and discovering who they want to be,” Manier said, “and what they’re capable of doing. It shows them they are not a bad kid because this has been their life up until this point.”

Some of the teens sell their artwork online through a website that Guerilla Poets set up. It shows them an alternative way to make money for things they may need, Manier said.

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Students from Henderson Independent High School performed “Lost in the System” at the Lee Street Theatre in Salisbury. The students wrote and performed the play as part of a Guerilla Poets workshop. Andria Shores Cantrell

Artist, poet, coach

Manier is the artist in residence at the Center for Faith & the Arts in Salisbury. She has studio space and an office there. In addition to Guerilla Poets, she is a creative coach, takes commissions for art and poetry, and travels the Southeast for poetry shows. She is trained in Trauma-Informed Care and teaches other instructors in this approach to working with individuals.

She grew up traveling with her family. Her dad built glass factories around the country. She graduated from The Art Institute of Charlotte with an associate degree in graphic design.

Manier has been selected by TEDxCharlotte to give a talk titled “There’s no such thing as a bad teen.” It’s about how providing safe spaces for teens for self-discovery radically changes their outcome. The talk will be filmed Oct. 9 and posted later in October.

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Shane Manier and DeNeer Davis facilitate a Guerilla Poets workshop about claiming your worth in 2019 with students at Henderson Independent High School in Salisbury. Johnathan Smith

Changing the narrative

Andria Shores Cantrell has been the executive director for the Center for Faith & the Arts in Salisbury for the past five years. Cantrell attributes Manier’s success with teenagers to her nonjudgmental attitude and ability to show her students empathy.

“She really can relate to youth,” Cantrell said. “She intuitively knows the challenges (teens) face. She has genuine love for working with youth who have behavior problems or emotional problems.”

Cantrell remembers how an activity Manier facilitated changed a student’s outlook. Manier gave the class a prompt: Express who you are. One student’s paper included the words “freak,” “slut” and “whore” written in black ink surrounding a cartoon-like character facing away from the viewer. Manier encourages students like this one to “own their narrative.” She asks questions to help them discover more about themselves.

The student requested to borrow art supplies and returned two weeks later with a colorful picture of a hand with patterns drawn on each finger. The negative words from the last drawing were replaced with, “My past doesn’t define who I am, courageous, smart, strong and mended.”

“Instead of me telling her this is who she is, she was able to discover it for herself,” Manier said. “Because of that, her entire outlook changed. It pivoted at that point. When you provide them with the space to figure it out for themselves, they get that empowerment. They feel like they can change their outcome.”

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