OGDEN, Utah – Amir Jackson, a Weber State University student who started a nonprofit organization to help at-risk youth, is one of the first individuals nationwide to be recognized as a Newman Civic Fellow by the Boston-based Campus Compact.
Jackson was among 135 Newman Civic Fellows, who received the inaugural award this May. The Newman Civic Fellows Awards recognize inspiring college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. The Fellows are nominated by college and university presidents.
“I’m honored to be selected as a Newman Fellow, but it means so much more in terms of the awareness it brings to my foundation,” Jackson said.
A junior pursuing a degree in psychology, Jackson is the founder and director of the Nurture the Creative Mind Foundation (NCM), a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization he started in 2007.
The NCM program uses creative expression as a path to building self-esteem in youth. The inspiration for the program comes from his own experiences growing up in Rochester, N.Y. When he was 12, Jackson left an abusive home situation to live with his grandmother and an aunt who was just a few years older than him.
“I was naturally kind of meandering to a negative place at a time in life when a lot of people get lost,” Jackson said. He wrote about his feelings and emotions in a poem that was “melancholy and had a dark side to it.” Then Jackson shared the poem with his aunt.
She told him it was good and bought him a journal so he could continue to creatively express himself. Jackson recalls his aunt’s encouragement as a defining moment.
“That poetry was my way of getting someone to see me in a positive way,” Jackson said. “That positivity was addicting. It let me know that I was valuable.”
After graduating from high school, Jackson served a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, which brought him to Utah. Following his discharge from the service, he wound up volunteering at Lincoln Elementary in Layton, Utah, a Title I school with a diverse population, including students from a lower socioeconomic background.
He started off teaching the program to one class at Lincoln Elementary, encouraging students to abandon their preconceptions and embrace music and poetry.
“I tell youth to open their minds, since most students are opposed to or have negative thoughts about poetry,” Jackson said. “I ask them what would a song be without words. If we took music and took melody and instruments away, what would that leave? Just the words, which are poetry.”
Rather than focus on their differences, Jackson encouraged the youth to use creative expression to find the connections between one another. Based on that initial success, he was asked to come back the next year and teach two classes.
“I started to see the benefit of the program, and I started to think, not about how many we had worked with, but how many we hadn’t,” Jackson said.
That led him to offer the program at treatment centers, women’s shelters, the YWCA and anywhere else he could find at-risk youth. In the past three years Jackson has worked with more than 500 youth from Davis, Salt Lake and Weber counties.
The 30-year-old Layton resident would like to make the program available statewide, and someday, he’d like to take it nationwide.
“I’ve seen what has happened with a minimum amount of people supporting it. Where could it be with even more people and support?” Jackson asked. “I know it’s a program that works both in terms of building self-esteem and academics.”
Jackson points to students who, when assigned to write one or two poems, return to class having written five or six. At the start of the program students take a pretest. The average pass rate for the pretest is 67 percent. By the end of the eight-week program, the collective pass rate for most classes is 83 to 84 percent.
Jackson recently published “Yes, I am STILL here,” a collection of stories and poems written by teenage girls who are survivors of various forms of abuse. The stories show the contrast from young women struggling with their experiences, to their newfound ability to recognize and celebrate their self-worth.
Jackson said that along the way, he’s learned as much from the program as the students he works with.
“The foundation has given my life purpose,” Jackson said. “This is something that I wake up and think about. I know what I should be doing. Everything else is secondary. We don’t make money or fatten wallets, but I am continuously happy. The work itself brings me happiness.”
Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents — representing some 6 million students — who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education to improve community life and to educate students for civic and social responsibility. Through the Newman Civic Fellows Awards, college and university presidents acknowledge students with the ability and motivation to create lasting change in our communities. For more information about the Newman Civic Fellows, visit compact.org.
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