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Thursday, June 08, 2023

The JVN Project: Empowering youth and connecting communities through the art of hip-hop

Right next to the Center for Limnology, where the Lakeshore Path begins, there is a stone with a plaque on it. Candles, summer flowers and a flag decorate the stone.

People walk, run and bike by the stone every day. It is a reminder of what was lost on the Aug. 30 of 2012.

John “Vietnam” Nguyen drowned in Lake Mendota saving the life of his friend that morning. Nguyen was a scholar of the First Wave program from Chicago studying at UW-Madison. He was active in both of these communities, a gifted hip-hop artist and a big influence on many lives. He was only 19.

Today, Nguyen’s legacy continues to inspire in Madison through the JVN Project, an organization set up by those who knew him to keep spreading his positivity by using hip-hop as a tool of empowerment in the Madison community.

Zhalarina Sanders is the executive director of the JVN Project. She knew Nguyen and was also one of the project’s founders.

“There was a lot of talk about how his work felt like it had just begun,” Sanders said. “The idea of the JVN Project came out of wanting to continue that work.”

The JVN Project started out as a google doc shared with the members of the First Wave program—an effort headed by Sanders and a couple friends to keep Nguyen’s work alive. Three and a half years after its creation, the JVN Project has a staff of 27 and has had 52 members help with the program since its creation.

“A lot of people say it’s what keeps them [the staff] grounded here in Madison,” Sanders said.

Reaching out

High school is a formative time and often a confusing one. Identities are formed and emotions often run close to the surface—an ideal environment for artistic expression. Although, for anyone who has been through high school, finding spaces to do this can be challenging.

That’s where the JVN Project comes in. The flagship program of the JVN Project is called the “One Life” workshop. Members of the organization go through a two-week training program to become facilitators for these workshops, as well as having ongoing meetings to create lesson plans for workshops that stay true to the project’s mission.

These trained facilitators are then sent out to Madison-area high schools (East, West, Memorial and La Follette) once a week in groups of two to four to conduct a creative writing workshop.

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According to Sanders, workshops are typically 90 minutes long, although they often run over because the young people love to talk. The workshops are a safe place to speak with peers and engage outside of a conventional classroom setting.

“Our mission is to focus on telling the story first, encouraging them to speak no matter how it comes out, and not to be nervous about others’ perceptions of their art,” Sanders said. “Getting young people literate and telling their stories has been huge for us, focusing on any way of expressing yourself within the elements of hip-hop.”

These weekly workshops encourage students to think creatively and express themselves through the various elements of hip-hop, giving creative voice to their story. The JVN Project provides the resources to build a base in this creative expression through the “One Life” workshop series, giving students a safe place to experiment and try out the art.

In addition to “One Life,” the JVN Project sponsors a monthly open mic and poetry slam called “Word Power” at the Goodman Community Center and the Lussier Community Center, alternating locations every other month. These slams are a place for those confident in the work they have begun in or outside of the workshops to begin practicing the craft of performing their art.

“The workshops are to get young people writing, but the open mic is to give them a space to showcase their work and to compete with their art,” Sanders said.

The JVN Project’s investment in the Madison community manifested in a big way recently, assembling a team to compete at the Brave New Voices international competition. Brave New Voices accepts one team per city of six poets, chosen by competing in and winning poetry slams throughout the year. For the first time in a long time, Madison will send a team to the international competition to compete and represent the city.

“It took a lot of organizing on our end, to show that we are a legitimate organization that facilitates slams throughout the year that could assemble a team that would be competition-worthy,” Sander said.

Celebrating Madison through hip-hop

One of the big events that the JVN Project presents every year is the JVN Day Festival. This festival began as a one-day celebration of hip-hop on the anniversary of Nguyen’s death. This year, the festival will expand to three days, showcasing everything from movies to community awards.

“It’s my favorite thing we do, besides the workshops,” Sanders said. “We all are working 22-hour days, folks are running on no sleep and having the time of their life. I love to see the staff having fun. It’s a time where we as facilitators get to be creative and generative.”

Sanders also said it was a time for her to reflect on Nguyen, and for people who never knew him to learn about who he was and his work that is carried on through the program. The festival embodies the ability of hip-hop to empower others and to bridge communities, according to Sanders.

“Elements in the Park” is a special portion of JVN Day that lets community members engage with all five elements of hip-hop: breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, MCing and the pursuit of knowledge through art.

“[The festival] is a celebration of the life-changing spirit of hip-hop,” Sanders said.

Sustaining a community

The JVN Project works hard to create and support positive images of the hip-hop community in Madison, as well as positive creative spaces for young people to express themselves. Sanders said that it saddened her to see how hip-hop is perceived by those who understand it only as a genre of music and not a community.

“I think if you are in the community, you know better, and if you are not somebody who actually engages with the community and only recognizes hip-hop as a genre of music, then not only the concept is skewed, but the way you help young people is skewed, specifically the young people who have used hip-hop as a way to feel free or empowered or to escape traumas,” Sanders said. “You are not using the tool young people are asking you to use, essentially.”

Sanders said that she sees the Wisconsin Idea in the fact that a lot of students, faculty and members of the UW community have a lot of positive and great ideas. This isn’t enough, though. Sanders said that the UW community, including the JVN Project, has not been as effective as they want it to be. Organizations have become siloed in their efforts to do something great, and Sanders hopes to see more collaborative efforts to engage the community across the campus.

“I think that we have all become too focused on our own projects, and that has been a detriment, preventing us from making changes in the community that feel tangible, sustainable and gratifying to all parties involved,” Sanders said.

Bridging the gap between those on the inside of the hip-hop community and those who don’t know about it is a group effort, according to Sanders.

“We have to be willing to have conversations that frustrate us or make us angry with people who simply don’t know, and we have to be willing to be offended,” she said.

Sanders said that both sides need to be willing to work through the ignorance or fear surrounding hip-hop, and that those on the outside need to be willing to work towards understanding that hip-hop wasn’t always a product, but an outcry from people who were oppressed and needed to have a medium of expression.

“Humility on both ends, period, is big,” Sanders said.

Sanders has been with the program since the beginning. She is graduating next May but has high hopes and big plans for the JVN Project. She hopes that it continues to expand, providing creative spaces and educating the community about hip-hop. Sanders wants the JVN Project to be a hub for the Madison community to express themselves through an art form with the intention of empowerment.

“I would love for hip-hop to be humanized again, that’s my biggest mission,” Sanders said.

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