The Life-Saving Power of Art

The Performance Academy of Jacksonville seeks support from the community for its youth-minded programs

Nikesha Elise Williams

The arts saved my life. Piano lessons, dance classes, writing; as a child these were my outlets when feelings bigger than myself overwhelmed my body. As an adult it is the discipline I learned in studying dance, the patience I learned in playing a song, and the freedom I found in giving myself over to a blank page that I rely on in my work as a journalist and author.

Artistic pursuits gave me purpose, gifted me with language, though not always verbal, and communication sometimes in the form of movement. The artist within me is the purest form of myself which at times was made to conform and assimilate to the world around me. When I stepped fully into my artistry after leaving my successful news career in 2019, I returned to the most authentic version of me. The me who knew what she wanted at 3, 7 and 16 before collegiate pressure, subjective opinions and rejection tried to tell me who I could and could not be. What I could and could not do. When I returned to myself, the artist within welcomed me back with open arms and a clear understanding of how I would work in the world.

It is for these reasons I gladly serve on the board of directors for The Performers Academy (TPA) in Jacksonville. The nonprofit arts organization on Beach Boulevard in Spring Park has specialized in arts programming as a behavioral intervention and mental health resource for the last 11 years. TPA serves Jacksonville’s youth who reside in licensed or kinship care in the longest running partnership with Family Support Services. Much of the success of this partnership is thanks to TPA Executive Director Ebony Payne-English, a nationally-renowned poet, author and performance artist. At the helm of TPA, Payne-English has used her arts curriculum to give the youth in her charge a choice and control—even if it is only over a small part of their lives—by using art as a vehicle for enrichment, love and success.

When interacting with her students Payne-English recites affirmations with them so that they may always know who they are no matter how schools, systems and carceral institutions may try to label them. She says with them:

         “I am whole and complete.

         I am divinely capable.

         Life is blessed by my presence.

         And I am present.

         And I am ready.

         And I am willing.


These affirmations are a call to courage for students enrolled at TPA be it during the after-school program Squad Goals or the three-week camp Just Like Me which has served more than 500 teens across the city over its 10-year tenure.

As Just Like Me prepares to kick off next month, it will be doing so under the theme of “Reality Shows,” guiding the students through their classes in dance, music, poetry, visual arts, theater fashion design and more and culminating in a final showcase at the Florida Theatre. During the performance, students will illustrate their reality of what it’s like to grow up in the foster care system and other challenges they face.

This year’s Just Like Me comes on the heels of TPA’s spring recital by the Squad Goals Teen Studio after-school program. During the event, The Visual Arts Squad had the privilege of unveiling a mural that was a collaborative project between Zende Randolph, a 13-year-old drawing and painting student at TPA, and Christopher “Cooli Ras” Clark, an internationally renowned visual artist who teaches at TPA.

Zende, who named the mural “Intergalactic Transportation,” has had several major artistic accomplishments since being enrolled in Squad Goals. He placed first in his division at James Weldon Johnson Park’s “Art in the Park” chalk art competition as well as first place in the Art Center’s landscape “Going Camping” competition this year.

Zende is just one example of how TPA contributes to the community by building up the youth it serves in the art they love. As a nonprofit organization TPA depends on the community for support for its programs. On July 9, TPA will hold its annual Sweet 16 Gala and Celebrity Lip Sync Battle at the Jessie Ball DuPont Center featuring performances from WJXT’s Rance Adams, State Representative Angie Nixon, local performance artist Barbara Colaciello and more. The goal of the gala is to raise $32,000 to provide 2,000 hours of TPA programming for the 2022-2023 school year at no cost to the students and caregivers. It is a small ask from an organization doing the work to save the lives of Jacksonville’s youth through the arts, like the arts saved mine.