Nicole “Soul” Creary has had a long career in social work and education, but over the years she noticed something was missing from efforts to help young people overcome obstacles in their lives: their own perspectives.
In 2007, Creary, who has a master’s degree in public administration and another in social work, built Soul2Soulz to address that issue, centering the voices of the 12-24-year-olds she serves in every aspect of the organization’s programming.
“I wanted to have something where it’s not just about us creating curriculum with what adults thought they needed, but that they had their voice in terms of what they thought they needed and how they wanted to be empowered,” Creary tells BK Reader.
Soul2Soulz goes into schools, juvenile detention centers, youth centers, group homes, independent living facilities and colleges to develop workshops and other programs that provide support and motivational tools to the youth to help them address any issues they may be facing and reach their full academic and personal potential.
Each lesson includes the five core elements of social emotional learning: self-awareness, social management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making through the impact of storytelling.
A core part of the programming is the peer to peer discussion groups, where the young people take the reins talking about topics that affect them. Creary and other staff members train a cohort of youth to lead the groups and the adults are merely there to make sure things stay on track.
The goal is that the youth will guide each other to make healthy choices about the issues that affect them. And Creary says despite the fact Soul2Soulz works with middle and high schoolers, and those who have left school, there are universal issues that arise in workshops, namely bullying, insecurity and challenges connecting with and communicating to adults.
A key way Soul2Soulz addresses these issues stems from Creary’s own background as a director and filmmaker. Understanding the value in storytelling and the power it has as a tool for communication, Soul2Soulz works with young people to create “issues-based films” that explore the issues that they are facing and what they want the world to know about them.
“Sometimes the topic can be something they want to talk about with other youth or it can be something they want adults to understand about them,” Creary says, “so that’s where the creative expression and amplifying your voice comes from for us.”
And she says the method definitely works. Creary says the first group of young people she had doing the peer to peer program had failed freshman year at high school and were struggling with attendance and behaviorial issues.
“We worked with these young people and did the peer to peer discussion groups with them and these young people went from not coming to school to having perfect attendance, from being F students to being solid B students, from failing tests to passing them,” she says.
She attributes some of that success to discussions the group had on leadership and lessons on how people had to lead by example, which were both backed up by film clips that helped to open the students up to the discussion.
“We saw tremendous jumps in academic and behavior improvement.”
Creary, who is based in Crown Heights, says the work the organization does is important for youth the world over, but that is especially the case in Brooklyn where “a lot of supports are very much still needed for the young people to be able to express themselves.”
“There’s a lot of different issues, especially in this generation, that continue to surface, and in Brooklyn, everything is here,” Creary says. “Kids are learning more about Black Lives Matter the Me Too movement a lot of LGBT community issues are coming up for young people, and a lot of that is actually showing up more in middle school than in high school.”
What is important to the all students Soul2Soulz serves is to have a voice, Creary says. “Some of the movies we have made are about being able to understand, and not use this word tolerant but use this word accepted for people.”
Looking forward, Creary wants to take Soul2Soulz work national and eventually international, sharing the peer to peer discussion model with youth overseas while exposing Brooklyn youth to new countries, lessons and experiences.
Although many of the issues the youth face are universal, she says it would be extremely valuable for the Brooklyn youngsters to understand “what kids in other countries are going through.”
You can follow Soul2Soulz on Instagram.