Malika Whitley
1,014,316 views • 6:28

Don't you love a good nap?

(Laughter)

Just stealing away that small block of time to curl up on your couch for that sweet moment of escape. It's one of my favorite things, but something I took for granted before I began experiencing homelessness as a teenager. The ability to take a nap is only reserved for stability and sureness, something you can't find when you're carrying everything you own in your book bag and carefully counting the amount of time you're allowed to sit in any given place before being asked to leave.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, bouncing from house to house with a loving, close-knit family as we struggled to find stability in our finances. But when my mom temporarily lost herself to mania and when that mania chose me as its primary scapegoat through both emotional and physical abuse, I fled for my safety. I had come to the conclusion that homelessness was safer for me than being at home. I was 16.

During my homelessness, I joined Atlanta's 3,300 homeless youth in feeling uncared for, left out and invisible each night. There wasn't and still is not any place for a homeless minor to walk off the street to access a bed. I realized that most people thought of homelessness as some kind of lazy, drug-induced squalor and inconvenience, but that didn't represent my book bag full of clothes and schoolbooks, or my A+ grade point average. I would sit on my favorite bench downtown and watch as the hours passed by until I could sneak in a few hours of sleep on couches, in cars, in buildings or in storage units. I, like thousands of other homeless youth, disappeared into the shadows of the city while the whole world kept spinning as if nothing at all had gone terribly wrong. The invisibility alone almost completely broke my spirit.

But when I had nothing else, I had the arts, something that didn't demand material wealth from me in exchange for refuge. A few hours of singing, writing poetry or saving up enough money to disappear into another world at a play kept me going and jolting me back to life when I felt at my lowest. I would go to church services on Wednesday evenings and, desperate for the relief the arts gave me, I would go a few hours early, slip downstairs and into a part of the world where the only thing that mattered was whether or not I could hit the right note in the song I was perfecting that week. I would sing for hours. It gave me so much strength to give myself permission to just block it all out and sing.

Five years later, I started my organization, ChopArt, which is a multidisciplinary arts organization for homeless minors. ChopArt uses the arts as a tool for trauma recovery by taking what we know about building community and restoring dignity and applying that to the creative process. ChopArt is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, with additional programs in Hyderabad, India, and Accra, Ghana, and since our start in 2010, we've served over 40,000 teens worldwide. Our teens take refuge in the transformative elements of the arts, and they depend on the safe space ChopArt provides for them to do that. An often invisible population uses the arts to step into their light, but that journey out of invisibility is not an easy one.

We have a sibling pair, Jeremy and Kelly, who have been with our program for over three years. They come to the ChopArt classes every Wednesday evening. But about a year ago, Jeremy and Kelly witnessed their mom seize and die right in front of them. They watched as the paramedics failed to revive her. They cried as their father signed over temporary custody to their ChopArt mentor, Erin, without even allowing them to take an extra pair of clothes on their way out. This series of events broke my heart, but Jeremy and Kelly's faith and resolve in ChopArt is what keeps me grounded in this work. Kelly calling Erin in her lowest moment, knowing that Erin would do whatever she could to make them feel loved and cared for, is proof to me that by using the arts as the entry point, we can heal and build our homeless youth population.

And we continue to build. We build with Devin, who became homeless with his family when his mom had to choose between medical bills or the rent. He discovered his love of painting through ChopArt. We build with Liz, who has been on the streets most of her teenage years but turns to music to return to herself when her traumas feel too heavy for her young shoulders. We build for Maria, who uses poetry to heal after her grandfather died in the van she's living in with the rest of her family.

And so to the youth out there experiencing homelessness, let me tell you, you have the power to build within you. You have a voice through the arts that doesn't judge what you've been through. So never stop fighting to stand in your light because even in your darkest times, we see you.

Thank you.

(Applause)