Hip-hop has been one of the most influential cultural catalysts around the world. When Carlos Chavez – Executive Director and Co-Founder of Morpheus Youth Project (MYP) – began his mentorship work with at-risk, incarcerated youth, he saw its potential to spark a path to self-awareness.
Since their inception in 2011, the work at MYP has been about meeting young people where they are – geographically and emotionally – and building long-term relationships. Chavez and Co-Founder Phil Stockton saw a need for programming with genuine community building to transform young lives that have been negatively impacted by personal and community trauma.
“Our whole thing is, once you build a relationship with us, that relationship will last forever. So we don’t just pop in your life, and we’re out. As long as you want to be connected with us, we’re going to be connected with you and support you,” said Chavez.
Over the last decade, MYP has hosted break dance competitions, hip-hop jams, historical presentations and art workshops for thousands of youth and community members in East Multnomah County. These events expose the youth to some of the most talented dancers, MCs and artists from near and far. The chemistry that results proves to be pivotal moments for everyone involved.
MYP provides cultural teachings about Chicano history, African-American history, the history of the war on drugs and more. Many of the students who graduate from MYP’s programming return as facilitators and programmers themselves.
Morpheus Youth Project primarily partners with MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, but they also serve youth from Multnomah and Marion County Juvenile Detention Centers and other high schools in Outer East Portland and Gresham. Their goal is to reach youth all along the path of the school-to-prison-pipeline from their teenage years to about 25 years old.
Metro awarded MYP a Community Placemaking grant of $25,000 for youth programming taking place within Metro’s urban growth boundary. The Community Placemaking program supports community-driven, arts-based, equity-centered efforts that strengthen people’s connections to each other and the places they care about. MYP was one of eight 2019 placemaking grantees. During the course of their grant, Chavez and his team produced a unique combination of events at a variety of different sites between 2019 and 2020.
World renowned graffiti artist Mear One participated in an art show, taught several workshops and collaborated on a mural project. Most in attendance were youth of color from lower income homes and Latino migrant youth housed in Portland shelters.
About 40 boys got the opportunity to experience a sweat lodge ceremony at Multnomah County Youth Detention. A sweat lodge ceremony is a sacred, healing indigenous practice and can only be performed with permission from indigenous elders.
MYP produced an art show on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in 2019 at the Nemesis Rogue gallery space. The show featured artwork from MYP facilitators and students from East Portland, Gresham, Multnomah County Juvinile Detention Center and MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. Many youth have experienced loss of family and friends, so a community alter was created to honor those that passed with offerings of art, fruit and other personal items.
They hosted numerous break dance and freestyle dance workshops, competitions and exhibitions with hundreds in attendance. In addition to events, they continued their art mentorship programming throughout the school year at Fir Ridge Alternative High School for Latinx and Indigenous boys and girls who were identified as at-risk, with some having gang affiliations.
Even as COVID-19 put a stop to MYP’s in-person programs, they swiftly adjusted to providing weekly art, dance and video production programing for Youth Progress, Latino Network and MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility via remote streaming.
Metro’s grant has helped Morpheus Youth Project reach more youth and even provide compensation for youth participation. One example is their 130-foot by 12-foot mural project commissioned by Portland General Electric in downtown Portland at the Waterfront. Seven youth mentees participated and received mentorship from 6 professional graffiti artists. It was a collaborative effort that showcased the talents of Portland and Gresham’s top Black and brown artists and youth.
There is no doubt that Chavez and MYP are leaving a positive mark on youth who quite often are cast aside after getting caught up in the juvenile system. And while programming drives a lot of the work, it is the effort and consistency that seems to stick with the youth the most.
“What Carlos has done – he’s been able to build relationships, build trust. We never had those types of relationships. We never had people who kept coming back. We’re going through growing pains, we’re still messed up,” said a young man who recently finished a sentence and is now supporting Morpheus Youth Project. “Give us an avenue for change. Give us an avenue to empower us. That’s why I want to work for Morpheus. I want to give kids who are going through the same struggles that I did as a juvenile an opportunity. That’s all we need is the opportunity to grow and Morpheus is offering that.”
Chavez hopes that this work reminds people that progress also comes from giving the youth the opportunity to stumble, learn from it, and move forward.
“It’s one thing to really capitalize on the growth that these guys have. I see a lot of that happening. Folks want to take the photo opportunity with these young people when they’re doing something good, but they’re never around when they’re struggling,” said Chavez.