by Joey Phoenix
Marquis Victor, the Founding Executive Director of Elevated Thought in Lawrence, is a poet, photographer, designer, educator, businessperson, and visionary.
He co-founded Elevated Thought in 2010 as a way to address social issues through art and by providing a platform for youth in underprivileged areas to have a voice – to have a way to be seen, heard, and recognized by the broader public.
In 2018, The Essex County Community Foundation, in partnership with the Barr Foundation granted Elevated Thought $25,000 for its project “Co-Creating Culture”, a public art installation at the Lawrence Public Library created to celebrate the diverse cultures of Lawrence and highlighting the Library as a cultural convener.
The Road to Empowerment
Throughout history, the desires of the young people in communities often get drowned out, and for Marquis, a person of color growing up in North Andover and the son of an Irish mother and a Haitian father, things especially weren’t easy. Finding his voice was something that took time.
“I was the poor colored kid who wore his dad’s hand-me-downs that were way too big; my Mom sewed patches into them,” Marquis said. “There weren’t a lot of kids who looked like me.”
Growing up under these circumstances pushed Marquis into two different interests, basketball and poetry, as a way to build community and express himself.
Basketball, in particular, made an impact on Marquis’ development for a number of reasons. One reason was that it drew attention to existing socio-economic imbalances that made him feel both privileged and underprivileged simultaneously, which is a confusing situation for a child to parse. Where in North Andover he felt on the outside for having so little, when playing basketball in Lawrence he felt out on the outside for having something at all.
“In the inner city I was the kid from North Andover who had always had his parents around, which was hard to grapple with when I was younger,” he said.
As a way to deal with this inner tension, Marquis started to seek out his creative voice as he felt he needed to sort through what he was experiencing emotionally. He credits a third-grade teacher, Miss Desmond, as the first to plant the seed of creativity in him, encouraging him to transfer his thoughts into art. Other teachers in middle school also saw his potential and opened creative doors for him as well.
“They really encouraged creation and imagination and so it became a way for me to be myself,” Marquis remembered. “I love to do all different types of art and writing, and poetry was big for me early on.”
After middle school, Marquis moved to Methuen and started making deeper connections with Basketball friends both there and in Lawrence. Unfortunately, this transition also corresponded with him losing touch with the more expressive side of himself. Instead of making art, he leaned further into Baller Culture and put a higher priority on sports connections than on soul-building.
“I had never had like a home, a place I felt like I was from, but I did feel almost during those high school years like an adopted son,” he said, “but I was pushing away my creativity and imagination for the sake of identifying as a basketball player, which hindered my development as a human being.”
By pushing this aside and choosing this path, Marquis believes that he kept himself from growing the way that he should have. He thinks that had he fully developed the ability to express himself through art earlier, he might’ve made better choices.
He did get a scholarship to play college basketball. He also got booted from the team and lost his scholarship five months later. When his mom found out, she kicked him out of the house, and in one solid sweep, he was aimless, adrift, and homeless. With nowhere else to go, he headed to Providence to stay with a friend in an area Marquis described as “shady.” For the first time in his life, he had to fend completely for himself.
“During that time of survival and trying to figure shit out, poetry really re-emerged for me. And along with it all of these existential questions came too: who am I, what am I doing, how did I end up here, what’s the purpose of me?”
There was no way to go but through.
It took him a while to bounce back from this blow, but once he did, he was able to refind his center. He started reading everything he could, learning about everything he could. He also re-applied to school. It was as if the lights went on for him and he could see everything more clearly. He also started to pay attention. He also started writing poetry.
“I was able to put my eyes toward the social landscape and be like hey it’s pretty fucked up out here,” he said. “Even when I was in Lawrence because I was kind of in a bubble and so really young, I didn’t really internalize these things.
“Now that I had a particular growing consciousness I could see the nuances of systematic inequality and how people just have to grind to survive,” he added.
It woke up questions in him that had long been waiting to be addressed. So, instead of ignoring them, he went back to school, to Salem State University, and started to study Sociology and Public Relations to better understand the world around him. He also started performing his poetry. And although he still played basketball, it took a back seat to the things that were keeping him focused on finding solutions for problems in the communities around him.
The Merging of Creativity and Social Justice
During his time studying at Salem State, Marquis continued to make a deeper connection between creativity and social justice with the help of his long-time close friend Alex J. Brien, mural artist and eventual Elevated Thought co-founder.
For his senior project, Alex was working on a mural in his brother’s rented out construction warehouse. It was a depiction of Lawrence, with one side of the mural showing a John Coltrane-Esque figure playing the saxophone and on the other side a young woman crying with her tears forming the word “Why?”
The question she asked was predominantly this: “Why is there so much sorrow in this city never-ceasing never-ending?”
The work inspired Marquis to write a spoken word piece about the prevalent economic imbalances and difficulties inherent in the city. And while he was writing this, he started thinking about how they could use this collaboration to actually create some change in the city itself.
“I thought that maybe we could through art address social justice issues and if no one has the answers maybe start to develop some initiatives ourselves – and thus was born Elevated Thought.”
In 2010, while Marquis was working on his Master’s degree, they established Elevated Thought as a non-profit and began teaching classes and workshops to youth on the North Shore before eventually landing in Lawrence and focusing on what was going on there. Marquis left his day job to work with Elevated Thought full time in 2015.
Marquis, and by extension Elevated Thought, believes art has the power to generate awareness and investment in social issues. The organization focuses on youth who are persistently experiencing the devastating consequences of inequality, teaching the concept of “Art as a Form of Liberation.”
“It goes right back to my own experience,” Marquis described. “When young people have access and exposure to creativity and grapple with things in their mind and have an outpouring that’s safe and secure and non-judgmental, then they start to feel more secure in this chaos.”
Out of that security comes conversations, and through conversations, you get understanding, empathy, and shared experiences that can connect to the broader community.
Marquis has also discovered that a side effect of doing the work in a community as tight-knit as Lawrence is that once students go through the program as youth, they want to come back to teach and aid and connect with the new young people coming into Elevated Thought. Five out of six of Elevated Thought’s core staff are program alumni and have helped to mold and define the organization as a whole.
Marquis believes that those who are part of the community are best equipped to feed back into it because they are the ones who actively understand it. Giving them the tools to do the work is what makes the results and impact of the work sustainable. And, after nearly a decade of putting in the work himself, he’s seeing it happen right in front of him in the next generation.
Art as a Form of Liberation
Currently, Elevated Thought is hosting a number of after and in-school programs meant to provide the young people of Lawrence with the resources they need to express themselves and use their voices for self-healing and expression, and community healing and community change. They are multi-disciplinary, and kids have their choice of what to work on whether its film, photography, visual art, spoken word, or something entirely new.
In addition to all of these programs and initiatives – many of them spearheaded by a collaboration between artist David Christopher, the organization co-founders, and youth alumni, Elevated Thought has launched an after-hours program for youth aged 18-25 who have aged out of traditional programs. They also plan to start opening their doors to eighth-graders, because evidence has shown that the impact of the program is greater the longer the youth participates in it because this time commitment makes them more invested in their personal growth and in the growth of their communities.
However, because the program is free for the students, it’s difficult for Elevated Thought to always have enough of what they need to provide these opportunities.
“Right now we’re at an inflection point and we need more support in order for me to bring people on so I can focus my energy on building capacity, sustainability, and creating foundations for the future of the organization along with expanding resources for all our programs,” Marquis said. “We need people who can manage and oversee programs, we need people who can handle operations, and we need help with design.”
Growth requires resources and expansion, and although necessary, it isn’t always easy. And while art isn’t the only mechanism for change, Marquis is convinced that it’s one of the most important ones. One denotes the other.
“Art is a means of empowering people to have a voice because it can put those voices in public spaces that matter where people listen, and not everything [the youth] say is right but they need to be part of the conversation.”
To understand this, communities need to think long term.
“If young people start to recognize their voice, and if they love their city and they have the capacity to use their voice, then [communities] are increasing the likelihood that they are going to get creative passionate people to come back and serve and help build the community up and move it forward.”
Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them @jphoenixmedia on twitter.
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