“My name is Kyrah,” she says. “I’m a Leo. I’m 5-foot-2, and I dye my hair a lot.”

Kyrah Henderson sets her open palms at her sides as she delivers a spoken-word piece, while Princess Jackson croons the closing lines to one of her songs. The Liberty Arts Coffee House settles from bustling to silent as the duo perform.

“I’m human,” Henderson says, “And sometimes you just have to tell your truth.”

The two portrayed their works in the downtown Winston-Salem coffee shop, as they and others celebrated Authoring Action’s 17th birthday on June 9th..

Since its founding in 2002, Authoring Action has offered programs that center on self-expression and arts education. The nonprofit delves into visual art, filmmaking, music and writing in many forms, through both a summer intensive course and an after-school program. Co-founder and Artistic Director Nathan Ross Freeman sees arts and education as intrinsically entwined.

“I always work from the premise that to even separate those words is incredulous,” Freeman says.

Along the walls of both levels of the coffeehouse hang framed canvases from the organization’s teen participants. A broad image of a crane with its wings spread stretches out over the beverage coolers. A handprint with each line and fold intact stands out in warm hues against a dark-blue background. A splattering of saturated hues sits behind a neon pink female sign.

Freeman, along with Co-founder Lynn Rhoades and a team of staffers, has worked with the participants — which they dub “authors” — to encourage self-actualization through creative fields. They focus on encouraging teenagers, especially those who may otherwise not have access to the arts, to build their own voices from their experiences.

“At that time in your life, you’re seeking some form of expression,” marketing and resource development leader Elise Wallace says. “I think Authoring Action turns that expression inward.”

During the nearly two decades since the founding of Authoring Action, its programs have earned the organization and its teenage members invitations to multiple conferences and colleges, including the Harvard School of Education and as a keynote presenter at the National At Risk Educator’s Network’s NAREN Conference. Recently, the group provided text to go alongside local artwork on construction fences near the Bailey Power Plant in Winston-Salem.

Twenty-year-old Princess Jackson sings a love song, her mint-green nails resting on the microphone. She entered Authoring Action as a 15-year-old student, but returned as a music educator. Jackson believes the program fostered as much connectivity as it did creativity.

Twenty-year-old Princess Jackson entered Authoring Action as a 15-year-old student, but returned as a music educator. (photo by Savi Ettinger)

“It’s not so surface-level,” she says. “You have more of a sense of who you are and how authentic you are.”

Kyrah Henderson walks up to a second microphone and the song turns into a duet. Her piece too focuses on love, but then takes a turn towards self-love — a topic significant to the young woman. As a 16-year-old in Authoring Action, Henderson worked in a program for mental health education and awareness in Reynolds High School. She has worked as a mentor in Authoring Action for the past two years.

“Mental health is really important,” she says. “It’s the best of self-love to take care of that.”

Samuel Allen’s voice reverberates through the room, his powerful thoughts on racism and history echoing through both floors of the shop during his spoken-word piece.

“I am not color-blind,” he intones. “Not hateful towards your skin, just the history that’s behind it.”

Allen participated as a teen author in three separate ensembles of Authoring Action as a high schooler, and now faces his second year as a mentor. Allen recounts attending the NAREN Conference with the group while still in high school.

“You can go from writer,” he says, “to author.”

The programs’ current authors stand next to their mentors, as many of the partygoers gather in a semi-circle. They surround a cake that seems small under the 17 candles jutting out of its top, lit one by one. They sing — not to some entity, but to each other, laughing as at least 10 people try to blow out the candles.

It is a birthday, after all.

Learn more about Authoring Action on their website here.

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