Friday May 19th, 2017
YoungArts’ Delali Ayivor interviews award-winning journalist Lisa Armstrong, co-creator of Little Boy Lost: One Child’s Story of Life Behind Bars, premiering as part of YoungArts’ Outside the Box series on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
DA: You have worked in the field of social justice as a journalist and as an academic with a master’s in urban planning. What value do you find in looking at injustice through both lenses? What do you notice and what changes when you flip from one focus to the other?
LA: My interest in urban planning was based on the fact that I was born in the States but grew up in Kenya; my dad worked for the U.N. and so I saw a lot of poverty. As a planner looking at international development you get to help people on a policy level. As a journalist, I’m technically not supposed to help anyone; I’m supposed to be objective. I’m simply telling stories about issues. So in this case, I’ve been looking at juvenile incarceration for about two years now. And it’s much more intimate. I find that I’m getting into people’s lives; I’m immersing myself. I’m able to then share their stories in the way that people care. I want people to care and think about solutions.
DA: You are a true global citizen. Elaborate on your upbringing and let us know how that informs your point of view.
LA: I was born in New York and when I was three I moved to Kenya. I lived there for 12 years, then lived in Jamaica for two years and then came back to the States; my parents are from the Caribbean. One of the things that struck me when I came back to the United States for university was how ignorant many Americans are when it comes to other parts of the world. I’m at a university and people are asking me, “Did you go to school? Did people live in trees? Did people wear clothes?” I was thinking to myself, this image that people have, particularly of the continent of Africa, which they see as just one big mass and it’s all the same, it’s rooted in what people see on TV and it’s distorted. So one of the things I wanted to do when I went to journalism school was to tell the truth as I knew it. As corny as this sounds, something that I know from having lived all over the world but also just having interviewed people from all walks of life is that they are all essentially the same on a basic level. People have the same desires and they are part of communities, they are part of families.
DA: Thinking about this material for Little Boy Lost: One Child’s Story of Life Behind Bars as an educator and an artist—and maybe you don’t make a division between those two things—what do you think is the difference between the role of the artist and the role of the educator in this project?
LA: I think my primary role in this film was to have Damien and his mother—his mother is a huge part of the film and I didn’t think she would be initially - tell their story in a way that they would feel was honest. That was my focus.
DA: What has your process been like so far working with a group of artists with such a wide diversity in age, medium, and experience of the topic? Had you ever done this kind of interdisciplinary work and what do you find particularly challenging or exciting about it?
LA: It’s been an incredible experience. We are creating this film, I wrote a script for it, it’s being produced but we have these breaks where it’s like “music is going to go here,” but you don’t know what that’s going to sound like; you don’t even know how it’s all going to fit together. To see the YoungArts alumni—such as Simbaa, who is doing spoken word, and the string quartet and the drummer— and to have them come in and play this music that works so seamlessly with the film has been really amazing.
Something else that happened is that Damien, who is the subject of the film, came in unexpectedly and started rapping. The musicians had just finished putting together a melody and without him being given a chance to even introduce himself, he was handed a mic. He then just started rapping and again it was like, everything just worked, it all fit together. So it’s really exciting just to see it all. I can’t wait, obviously, to experience it on Saturday.
DA: What is the number one message or call-to-action that you hope audiences take away from Little Boy Lost? What about this topic got under your skin most?
LA: I want people to understand how kids end up behind bars. Because I think that a lot of times, if you are looking at TV and there is a young person that has been incarcerated for some reason, it is like they have done this horrible, horrible thing and then people get stuck on the horrible thing, without thinking, well how did this kid end up doing this horrible thing? Where did he or she come from? And where’s the life story? And so I really want people to start seeing kids as kids regardless of what they do. I mean, there is science that proves that young people until the age of 25 don’t make really great decisions regardless of where they grow up. So if you add to that, growing up in an environment where there is a lot of crime or maybe you only have one parent at home who is trying to juggle everything. If you add all these things in you can kind of see the problems. But I don’t want people to see Damien as a victim. Regardless of what has happened to the people I have interviewed, I don’t want them to be seen as victims because yes, something bad happened in terms of how you came to be incarcerated but he persevered, he is an amazing human being. I guess that’s two things. I want there to be understanding but I also don’t want him to be seen as a victim. I want people to look at him and say “wow! What an incredible young man.”
DA: I think it’s really remarkable that he’s willing to do this; to tell his story in front of so many people. That’s amazing.
LA: Yes, it is; he is! And it’s honest.