by Beverly Aarons
The world is filled with driven individuals focused on attaining what’s most rewarded by society — money, status, power, and fame. But some individuals have a quiet determination to achieve not the glitter and glamour of the American Dream but at deep satisfaction at having done their part to transform individual lives and society as a whole — Jolyn GC could easily count herself as one of those people.
A former King County prosecutor and Washington native who spent her teen years in Rainier High, Jolyn has quietly been transforming the lives of youth and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline one project at a time. When Jolyn speaks of her life it’s as if she is speaking of many lives — her childhood in Kent, her teen years in Seattle, her life as a King County prosecutor and finally her current incarnation as an artist and social justice activist — her story is extraordinary but told by her in a matter-of-fact way and she’s never too braggadocios about it. And that’s just half of what makes Jolyn shine.
When asked about what inspired her to pursue a career as a King County prosecutor only to leave and become a social justice activist and artist in 2008, she made it clear that she felt an obligation to her community to help the community’s youth overcome their many challenges.
“I was just tired of seeing youth for my community, who I was somewhat connected to because I was familiar with their parents or other family members, get caught up in the system,” Jolyn said. “I wanted to create an alternative to in some way prevent youth in my community from going through the school-to-prison pipeline.”
In 2010, heavily influenced by her experience as King County prosecutor, Jolyn launched TEENERGY, an arts and social justice program for teens that teaches young leaders how to use their creative voice for social change. TEENERGY began in 2010 as a youth empowerment program but since 2014 it has focused primarily on social justice.
Jolyn works with youth from around the city especially south Seattle who have been engaged with the criminal justice system. By focusing on each teen’s unique needs, talents, passions, and experience, she aims to redirect their energies so that they can explore positive alternatives. The students involved in the program receive a stipend for their participation and they’re taught critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, and perseverance. The most recent TEENERGY cohort created an online zine called “Don’t Fall Through The Cracks” that aims to teach other youth and adults about the school-to-prison pipeline. The zine includes original artwork, poetry, essays, and articles all created by TEENERGY youth.
Jolyn made it clear that the youth lead the zine production process from the beginning, choosing the theme, deciding how their collective talents will be used, and organizing their times so that they could complete the project by their deadline. She also noted the powerful sense of accomplishment each teen felt once the zine was published.
“After the students saw the completed zine, one of the students had tears in his eyes so I was like ‘Oh what’s wrong?’ and he looked at me and said ‘I’ve never seen my art presented this way and I’m just so proud.’ And that’s the kind of outcome that can happen when you give teens the tools to express themselves,” Jolyn said. “It’s really rewarding to see that twinkle in their eye when they feel good about their work or when they feel confident about what they’re contributing to. It’s important because TEENERGY is completely driven by the youth that participate.”
The most recent TEENERGY zine is available online for free. Jolyn GC is currently working on funding the next TEENERGY program as well as creating art and curating exhibitions around the city.
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Featured Image: TEENERGY meets at MoPOP. Jolyn GC founded the organization to teach youth how to use their voice to affect change. (Courtesy Photo)