Marquis Victor has never been afraid of asking difficult questions. As a teenager he struggled with existential issues — the nature of love, the human soul, and the suffering and injustice he saw in the world.
As the founding executive director of Elevated Thought, an art and social justice nonprofit in Lawrence, MA, his goal is to give young people a voice to express and explore those questions and to look for answers.
Growing up in the Lawrence area, Marquis credits his early interest in social justice to the sharp contrasts he saw while living in different communities and attending a range of schools.
“I was a biracial kid. I bounced around a lot. I lived in a small house and then I’d ride my bike past these mini-mansions.”
He found an outlet for his frustration through spoken-word poetry.
“It was a way for me to develop a foundation of self after years of suppressing my creativity.”
During his senior year of college, an artist friend who was creating a mural asked him to write a poem in conjunction with the artwork. The synergy of street art, words, and social consciousness sparked something for Marquis.
“I was able to merge creativity with my disgust with reality,” he explains. “I realized that we could address social issues through art.”
While working towards his master’s degree in education at Lesley, Marquis taught at the Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury and wrote a social justice curriculum through a partnership with Citizen Schools and the Anti-Defamation League. He began exploring ways of teaching outside the traditional classroom, inviting his muralist friend Alex J. Brien to visit and teach the kids about art and social issues. The idea for Elevated Thought came out of their conversations about how to advance social justice by helping young people find their own paths to self-expression.
“My classes at Lesley played a big role in my process — it helped me contextualize the work I wanted to do. I read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ at Lesley. Classes like Leadership and Community Engagement and Dimensions of Equity. I discovered Paulo Freire — learning to perceive oppressive realities in social, political, and economic structures.”
The city of Lawrence is no stranger to activism. Located 25 miles north of Boston on the Merrimack River, it was a center of 19th-century textile manufacturing and the site of the 1912 Bread and Roses strike, when thousands of immigrant mill workers, many of them women, led a walkout to protest long hours and low wages.
“It’s a beautiful city,” says Marquis. “It was a mill city — then all the jobs left. It’s been taken advantage of.”
Today Lawrence is still a city of immigrants, and with the manufacturing base gone, unemployment and poverty rates are among the highest in Massachusetts. For Marquis, Elevated Thought was a way to help the city’s young people turn their feelings about social injustice into art — and action. Through workshops, apprenticeships, and public art projects, the organization engages young people in activism using poetry, storytelling, painting, and film. Young people from the program have collaborated on city beautification projects and poetry performances, created a student bill of rights, and organized town halls for local candidates. One Elevated Thought alumna ran successfully for the Lawrence School Committee.
“It starts with conversations. Sometimes we’ll have a different theme — immigration, the nature of love, gentrification — and explore it through photography, creative writing, painting. We talk with our young staff about what they’re interested in — what helps your individual progress, your progress as a community? And then we might work with a local activist or collaborating artists to share ideas and think about a public art piece.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the city, with one of the highest numbers of cases in the state. As schools and businesses closed, the work that Elevated Thought was doing ground to a halt.
“We got hit hard. Everything we do is face-to-face. We had afterschool programs; we were going into schools, creating murals. We had to readjust.”
Amaryllis Lopez, Elevated Thought’s program director, created an emergency fund to provide direct financial assistance to their young staff, many of whom were struggling financially. Taking their programming online is still an evolving project.
“We’ve tested out some online open mic events, online viewing parties; we’re developing educational resources,” Victor says.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests have also helped to raise the profile of the organization, engaging even more young people in community advocacy and activism. Amaryllis and other youth staff are developing program initiatives around defunding the police, voter suppression, and anti-drug prohibition.
“It was tough but we’ve recovered,” says Victor. “We’re still engaging with young people in the community but we can slow down and breathe a little and make a plan.”
Marquis is exploring new beautification projects around the city and an accredited apprenticeship program for young artists. He’s confident that Elevated Thought will continue to adapt and grow and help more young people find their voice.
“We’re having these conversations with kids at an early age. ‘What do you think about this? What do you want to do about that?’ We ask them questions, they ask questions,” he says. “We provide a space for them to think and create, so using their voice and creativity for individual and community change becomes a natural process.”