A onetime prison warden shares her first love with youths: the arts

Alexandreena Dixon founded an organization that uses African storytelling traditions to teach long-forgotten African values and rituals. The aim is to broaden horizons for black children.

Courtesy of Encore.org
‘The arts helped me to think differently about myself. I believe they do the same for others,’ says Alexandreena Dixon, founder of Chiku Awali African Dance, Arts & Culture.

This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.

Dance was my salvation growing up in New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It kept me away from drinking, drugs, jail, and teen pregnancy – rites of passage for many of my friends. The arts helped me to think differently about myself. I believe they do the same for others.

I left dance behind because I wanted to help people, especially those on the opposite side of the law. I found that opportunity during a 38-year career with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. But my belief in the arts never wavered. I encouraged inmates to stage musicals such as “Annie” and “Into the Woods.” As I neared the age of 60 and the end of my career as a prison warden, I still saw too many black teens behind bars or pushing a stroller. I wanted to share my inspiration for a better life.

So in 2003, I founded Chiku Awali African Dance, Arts & Culture. Our Rites of Passage program uses African storytelling traditions to teach teenagers long-forgotten African values and rituals. Hundreds of children have participated since we began. I’m proud to say that nearly all our graduates have gone on to college or military service; one young man is now a cadet at the United States Military Academy, for example.

I think Chiku Awali has been an influence in those decisions. If you are constantly saying to kids, “What college are you going to go to?,” they’re gonna go.

The first rite of passage ceremony we focus on is the adinto ritual, when youths choose an African name and learn about a tribe’s traditions and customs. Each month, every child creates and shares a story based upon the previous month’s workshop. Participants also complete 24 hours of community service during the year.

The final ritual is the durbar, similar to a bar mitzvah, quinceañera, or dipo of the Krobo tribe of Ghana. Community members bring small donations to reward graduates for completing the program. But the most important rewards are the respect they earn and the personal insights they gain.

We focus on life and leadership skills, including conflict resolution, team-building, and etiquette. We also have fun, dancing and drumming. In fact, we use this time to teach the history of the djembe, the drum that many consider the instrument of Africa. We’ve even traveled to Africa to perform. It’s amazing to watch a shy child jump up and dance to the drumbeats.

We had our etiquette dinner this year at a hotel. The youngest child, Skyler, said, “Can you imagine, if we’re doing the things that we’re doing now, how great we’re going to be when we get to college?” She’s 10 years old, but she’s a crackerjack. It’s that kind of “Aha! I understand” moment: It touches my heart, and it’s why we do this – so they can do more.

If you say to people, “I care about you, and I think you can do a lot with your life if you have a guiding hand,” you encourage them to be better. You have to show them, too: We take our youths on college tours, and when they come back, their hearts are set on the schools they’ve seen.

We give children a new vision of their past, so they can see their future. We show them we have expectations for them – and they rise to the challenge. They’re gonna do great things. Absolutely.

For more, visit chikuawali.org.

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