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Relationship skills bloom with help of ‘Flowers’

by Ryan Torok

February 20, 2014 | 3:05 pm

From left: Naomi Ackerman and Raven, who participated in Ackerman’s workshop, Relationships 101, at juvenile detention center Camp Scudder. Photo by Karee Maxson

From left: Naomi Ackerman and Raven, who participated in Ackerman’s workshop, Relationships 101, at juvenile detention center Camp Scudder. Photo by Karee Maxson

Behind my mask, I am happy and loyal,” a teenage girl says, lifting a mask off her face.

“Because of my mask, I am very shy,” another girl says, removing a face covering.

“We are beautiful, and so are you,” eight girls say in unison, standing in a row, facing their audience.

Then, to the music of Michael Jackson’s “Black and White,” the girls come together in the center of the room to dance in a way that looks like they are fist-fighting, which they continue doing until more actors step in and break it up. 

This mix of spoken word, dance and improv took place recently at the Camp Scudder juvenile detention center in Santa Clarita.

Led by Naomi Ackerman, a Los Angeles artist of a mixed American and Israeli background, it is a form of art therapy that she offers these teens. Titled Relationships 101, it was created under the auspices of her nonprofit, the Advot Project. 

The program employs positive youth development methodology; studies have shown that social activities such as theater, different from one-on-one counseling, can help boost self-esteem among troubled teens.

On Feb. 23, Ackerman will offer a larger public glimpse into the work she has been doing at Scudder. At the event, she will debut a sizzle reel filmed last November showing her work with her latest cohort of teen inmates. Additionally, graduates of the program, who are no longer incarcerated, will appear to read original works. 

Ackerman said this was not the life she’d envisioned for herself. She grew up dancing and attended drama school in Israel. After college and into her 30s, she was part of a women’s theater group in Israel that did performances on the streets.

One day, in Jerusalem, a representative of the Israeli ministry of welfare and social services saw one of Ackerman’s street performances, in which Ackerman portrayed a woman who’d been hit by her partner on their wedding day. 

Ackerman says that the bride she was portraying — a woman in a wedding gown and a made-up face of bruises — was a sight to see that day. 

“I looked like I had the s--- beat out of me,” the 49-year-old said in an interview. 

Nonetheless, the Israeli welfare and social services ministry commissioned Ackerman to create a 20-minute piece about domestic violence and perform it for Israeli social workers at a conference. 

“They wanted me to hone in on the inner world of battered women, and their psyche,” Ackerman said.

She created a show thinking it would be a one-time deal, but the work she performed at that conference resonated — and changed the course of her life. Conference attendees who saw the performance, including a few women who were living in battered women’s shelters but were sitting in the audience that day, offered encouraging words.

Ackerman continued performing that work and, along the way, let the piece grow organically. And her own scope, over time, expanded as well: A 20-minute presentation became a narrative, an impassioned 50-minute monologue about a troubled relationship. 

Ackerman said she would have kept increasing the length of the piece if it had been up to her. Fortunately, an unlikely editor, her husband, Raphael Harrington, stepped in and said, “Dayenu”— enough.

“The first two years, it was work in progress. … [Over time, the] story got deeper and longer, and finally … Raphael came with me to see what I had done, and we left, and he was quiet. ‘You’ve got to stop,’ he said. ‘You cannot make it any longer. ... It’s done; it’s a full piece. Stop.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh my God, I have a show,’ ” Ackerman said.

She named the piece “Flowers Aren’t Enough,” and now, more than a decade after its conception, she continues to field requests from all over the world to perform it — she has taken it to India and Serbia; she has wowed audiences from Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. She says that she has performed the play more than 1,500 times.

But, despite the show’s success, she did not get the acting career that she wanted. Approximately 10 years ago, a television production company expressed interest in “Flowers Aren’t Enough,” an opportunity that seemed plausible enough that Ackerman — who at the time was pregnant with her first child — and her husband packed up and moved from Israel to Los Angeles. The lure of TV, coupled with the then-recent death of her father, Walter Ackerman — former executive director of Camp Ramah in Ojai and an icon in the world of Jewish education — convinced her it was time to relocate to the city where she had lived until she was 9. 

The TV show did not pan out, however, which left Ackerman with few options. Ultimately, she decided to leave behind her show-biz ambitions and instead take advantage of some of the contacts that “Flowers” had garnered her in the social justice world. 

With the assistance of numerous mentors, including Barbara Yaroslavsky, wife of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and an advocate in her own right, and with financial assistance from private and government supporters, in 2011, Ackerman formed Advot, creating “theater to promote social justice, raise awareness and facilitate social activism.” Relationships 101 is the organization’s flagship program, and Ackerman draws upon the lessons she explored in “Flowers” to show the girls how to navigate difficult relationships. 

“Difficult” is an understatement, actually. One of the young women in Ackerman’s recent cohort of inmates, an 18-year-old African-American named Alexis with an absent, self-destructive mother, was incarcerated after threatening her teacher with violence and another incident that included theft and physical assault. 

Since establishing Relationships 101, Ackerman has worked with approximately 200 incarcerated youth, including boys and girls, at four different detention centers. She notes that there is a 10 percent recidivism rate among those who have completed her program, which, she says, is comparatively low for these teens. Her most recent group, which started just a week ago, is her 11th cohort.

The participants are usually Hispanic and African-American, although Ackerman said she has worked with one Jewish girl. 

But Ackerman said her own life experience, which includes a mandatory stint in the Israeli army, helps to bridge any cultural gaps.

“Here I come, this white Jewish woman, working predominantly with African-American and Hispanic gang members, and immediately they were listening to me when I said I’d served in the Israeli army,” she said. 

“They don’t know about Israel — it’s not like, ‘Wow! Zahal is great,’ but they thought it was amazing that I was in the army, which is kind of funny. These kids — it’s important to build trust with them, and that was kind of a trust-bonding thing.”

Ackerman says the grounds of Camp Scudder, which is located off the I-5 freeway not far from Six Flags Magic Mountain, remind her of army bases back in Israel, with its barren barracks, browning lawns and unkempt basketball court. Perhaps the biggest difference is the barbed wire that runs along the fencing surrounding Camp Scudder.

In addition to the cultural differences, Ackerman also faces practical challenges in the running of a theater workshop with incarcerated youth that culminates with a performance staged before all of the facility’s inmates and staff. Often, the girls in the program, which lasts 10 weeks, are released in the middle of rehearsals. At one performance in November, for example, only a handful of girls were there — nearly half had been released since the group had formed several weeks earlier. 

On the day of the performance, Raven, a talented and bright 16-year-old inmate, teased Ackerman about the departures, telling Ackerman during a break in rehearsal in the camp’s gymnasium, that a meeting with her lawyer was going to prevent her from making it to the performance that evening.

Ackerman, to her credit, did not give away how distressed she was by this. Calmly, she asked the girl what time the court appearance was scheduled. 

“I’m kidding,” said Raven, whose last name, like all of the teen’s last names, was withheld for privacy.

For the most part, a noticeable trust between teacher and student was on display throughout the two days that this reporter spent at Scudder. Ackerman and the girls joked, talked and danced together. The girls put on wigs and applied makeup to one another’s faces. They ate lunch with Ackerman’s film crew — two female 20-somethings from an organization called Creative Visions Foundation who were filming Ackerman’s work at Scudder for a documentary; they produced the film to be shown at the Feb. 23 event in Malibu.

In many ways, working with Ackerman — the opportunity is limited to those who have displayed good behavior — is a chance for the girls, who are ages 13 to 18 and are serving sentences for infractional crimes to involvement in murders, to somehow experience childhoods they missed out on.

Ivory Thomas, the supervising deputy probation officer at Camp Scudder, says Ackerman’s work at Scudder helps the girls improve their interpersonal relationships.

“They want to connect with everyone, and when they cannot connect, there’s a total disconnect — [with] no understanding about how to keep relationships strong and existing,” Thomas said. “Ms. Ackerman has been able to teach them — some of these difficult minors — and have them see the possibility in a relationship where there was no hope.”

The work has garnered praise for Ackerman in the Jewish world.

“She really is making a difference and getting people she works with on the inside to engage in a [meaningful] process,” said Joshua Avedon, who attends IKAR, a social justice-oriented shul, with Ackerman. The two also recently traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of a fellowship with American Jewish World Service. 

Ackerman is now working on a follow-up to “Flowers Aren’t Enough.” Titled “Epidural,” this one-woman show will look at the challenges facing working mothers, and this work, unlike “Flowers,” is autobiographical. Ackerman has three children, all girls, ages 6 to 10, and admits she has struggled to find balance between her work and home life. 

She is also in talks with musician and impresario Craig Taubman about bringing Relationships 101 to his interfaith venue, the Pico Union Project. She hopes graduates of the detention centers can help to lead workshops there.

For Ackerman, the unexpected route her life has taken leaves her reflective — but also deeply appreciative. 

“Things haven’t gone the way I hoped they would, but I believe in understanding. You move forward, and you make change. I don’t believe in regrets, I believe in learning lessons, and I believe in change.”

This is, perhaps, why she has been successful with her work at Scudder.

“Through Advot, I am doing work I love. … I have many questions and a desire to make the future better,” she said. 

“I believe … that doing better next time means [doing better] tomorrow.”

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