The Necessary Arts of Naima Thompson

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A report by Shereen Ali for Trinidad’s Guardian.

Perhaps her work with young people has something to do with it. T&T-born drama teacher Naima Thompson founded the Necessary Arts School (NAS) 15 years ago, in 2002 in Trinidad, with actor Penelope Spencer and musician Lydia Ledgerwood, to help children (and some older folks) to express themselves and address personal and social issues through the arts.

From 2002 to 2008, the three women ran a full-time after-school and Saturday arts programme which included airbrush painting, voice training, hip hop dance, pan music, and drama for children six years old and up.

The sessions helped develop self-confidence, discipline, trust and positive self-esteem in many children.

Since then, the classes have scaled back in scope, but the core drama programme idea went global when Thompson emigrated from T&T about 10 years ago and took her arts outreach programme with her.

Her NAS enterprise still offers its drama workshops, both here and abroad.

Thompson is a Trinidadian who has been teaching middle school drama in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for the past few years.

She sees herself as a humanitarian first, and an educator second. With a BA in Communication Arts and a MEd in International Education, she’s been teaching drama for more than 20 years.

So how does a Trini woman end up halfway across the world?

“I always found it very disturbing that in such an oil-rich nation as T&T, NGO programmes (like Necessary Arts) struggle so much to get some funding to get (altruistic, developmental) work done. It is work done at a sacrifice, for people of T&T who need it,” said Thompson.

She explained: “When I was working in T&T (teaching drama at the International School in Port-of-Spain), I started to get really tired. I was working 20-hour days, both from my full-time (teaching) job and from my work in Necessary Arts. But I was not seeing the appreciation from the Government or from the people who matter, to keep the programme alive. So I had to make a decision: Well, Naima, are you going to stay in T&T and be a teacher and work for a minimal wage, or are you going to try to position yourself globally, and get yourself into a better situation financially, so that you can do the work?”

She chose the latter.

She opted to leave T&T, she said, due to “frustration at not being paid enough” to fund the developmental community work she wanted to do.

The decision seems to have worked for her. But it took a lot of commitment, courage, and advance planning (she’s a strong believer in five-year plans).

She travelled and worked in Qatar, Thailand, China and Dubai. She then decided that Necessary Arts needed a base in that part of the world.

So she located NAS in a free zone area of Dubai called the International Humanitarian City (IHC), which is a logistics centre for the distribution of humanitarian aid.

The IHC hosts nine United Nations agencies and more than 40 NGOs and commercial entities which all help deliver aid to people in crises around the world.

IHC members have helped people in the ongoing civil conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, flood recovery and educational projects in Pakistan, recurring drought in East Africa, and shipped aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Thompson’s current full-time job is working for GEMS Education, at the Dubai American Academy, which offers an American curriculum to international students of middle school age.

It is her salary from that job which pays for her non-profit, humanitarian Reach the Unreachable Necessary Arts outreach programmes—these she runs during her own vacation time.

She works with youth living in some hard-to-reach places—such as locations in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Turkey and T&T—and uses the tools of dance, drama, directed play and simple stagecraft to help children engage with themselves, deal with various issues, and move on to a better personal or social space.

Most recently, last month she completed arts/drama workshops with children in Tobago and in Grande Riviere, Trinidad.

The July 2017 T&T outreach programmes are the first she’s done since recovering from stage 1 breast cancer.

Thompson shared with the Guardian: “Every vacation, I source volunteers…And we go into these most incredible places with our arts and literacy development programmes. For example, in Kenya, we’ve worked with girls rescued from FGM (female genital mutilation) and early childhood marriage; we’ve partnered with a group in Nairobi, to do drama therapy and other activity with those girls.

“Another example would be the Sud Academy, just on the edge of Nairobi. (Editor’s note: Sud Academy is a school in Nairobi, Kenya for about 200 students, mostly refugees from war-torn southern Sudan; most have experienced or seen terrible atrocities.

“Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan funds the school.) It’s in a slum area.

“It was set up by the UNHCR as a school for Sudanese refugees to attend…The principal of the school was actually a child soldier in the Sudanese war who escaped and made his way to Kenya…We’ve worked with children there.”

She added: “We’ve also worked with Syrian children, ages four-11, in Turkey who are refugees from the Syrian conflict.”

The Necessary Arts outreach programmes have to be very flexible, changing to meet the needs of different groups, said Thompson.

So far, Thompson has been using her own savings to make activities of the Necessary Arts School happen.

And she has attracted some like-minded educators who are willing to pay their way and donate their skills to make a difference in other’s lives.

But Thompson says she would welcome any sponsorship with open arms. She dreams of one day being able to work at her non-profit organisation full time.

She believes arts groups like NAS can perform important and much needed roles: in therapeutic role play, in self-actualisation, and in developing qualities of confidence or empathy or cooperation in youth or adults with problems, for example. She believes arts programmes can help people develop healthier, happier, more balanced emotions through creative self-expression.

About her own NAS programme, Thompson said: “We are not trying to develop Picassos or Denzel Washingtons. We are trying to develop people who are critical thinkers, who have the confidence and self-esteem to rise to their best potential. That is what Necessary Arts aims to do, and I believe any art form can contribute to achieving this for a human being.”

That’s why Thompson named her enterprise “Necessary Arts”—necessary because for some people, especially those who face difficult circumstances or who may have been deeply traumatised, there’s a real need for transformation or engagement to help them overcome situations and develop a sense of humanity, community and global citizenship.

“The arts can help in that transformation,” believes Thompson.

So far she estimates Necessary Arts has touched more than 4,000 lives.

Necessary Arts is her way of making the world a better place—one step, or dance, or act, at a time.

MORE INFO:

Necessary Arts School: http://necessaryarts.org

YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRfdgB3u9w0

Naima Thompson’s blogsite: https://naoutreach.blogspot.com/2017

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