Justina Mejias is one busy lady. A Brooklyn native and proud Puerto Rican, Justina feels very strongly about giving back to her community and trying to break the cycles. She is involved with several important projects including StoryCorps and the Lineage Project, and she still has time to explore her creative side through art, music and poetry.
Avocation: poet, musician, vocalist, performance artist
Day job: StoryCorps Facilitator, Yoga teacher (Lineage Project), Music Teacher, Poetry Teacher
Birthplace/current location: Brooklyn
Online guilty pleasure: Astrology websites
You are involved with so many things, let’s start out talking about your work with StoryCorps, a national project whose mission is “to instruct and inspire people to record each others’ stories in sound.” The project has a booth up at Grand Central and people can go on the StoryCorps website and make an appointment to be interviewed either by someone they know or someone involved with the program. The interviews are then stored in the StoryCorps Archive which is housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It sounds like an amazing program. As one of the program's story facilitators, what exactly do you do?
The facilitator is the one that runs the interviews and the basic operations of the booth. Sometimes we conduct the interviews also, if people come in by themselves. It’s interesting. We set up an atmosphere that provides safety so that people can have an experience with each other. It’s teaching people how to listen to each other, how to have meaningful conversations and how to ask the questions that they might not feel comfortable asking in other places. I really feel it’s about holding the space so whatever needs to happen can happen.
What kinds of tactics do you employ to “hold the space”?
I feel there is a way to respond to people to make them feel that they’re not being judged but merely being witnessed. All of the facilitators are kind of special people that have the ability to make people feel comfortable.
You were on a radio show a few months ago talking about StoryCorps and you said “listening is an act of love,” which is such a wonderful thought. Can you elaborate on this?
That is kind of the motto of StoryCorps. In your daily life when you interact with people, it’s rare that you really listen, whether it’s a family member or a stranger. People tend to talk on top of each other or are just ready to jump in with the next thing. It’s not often you sit back and keep your mouth closed and just listen. To show that kind of attention is such an act of love that people don’t encounter often. I think people can really feel when what they say becomes important because somebody is really listening.
You’ve heard hundreds of stories by now, any you care to share?
A mother and daughter had come in and the mother was not very comfortable with the process. The fact that the interviews do go to the Library of Congress, we need people to sign releases and some people feel very private about their life. They don’t want it to become public. But the daughter understood how important it was to do the interview. She understood that when it becomes part of the archive family members way down the line will have access to their ancestors in a way that hasn't been possible in the past. So, they were fighting about the whole thing. I really wanted them to come in and felt like the mother had something to talk about. And she did, we actually got them to come in.
It was a beautiful interview. The mother talked about all these things. She hadn’t had such a happy life and she was able to go back to these times that were beautiful and meaningful to her. She spoke about how she first met her husband and their first date, being in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and her knowing this was the guy she was going to marry.
The mother and daughter laughed and cried a lot. At the end of the interview the mother came out, she had really talked more to me than to her daughter during the interview, and she said, “Thank you so much for listening, I will never forget you for the rest of my life.”
The daughter came up to me a little bit later and we talked about how her mom had had a very difficult life and for her to go back into that and to remember that there were happy times and that there were things that were good that happened to her, it was like seeing something lifted off of her.
Some people have experiences through this process that really change their lives.
Wow, that’s pretty incredible. It must be difficult to remain neutral and not become too emotional while you’re working.
Oh, I cry all the time. I’m the kind of person that feels very empathetic with people, so I do open myself up to that.
If you go to a psychologist or go to speak to a counselor or something, you don’t see them crying. But as a facilitator, it’s almost part of your job to have the experience with them. That is something that also makes the participants feel comfortable too. They may feel embarrassed crying but when you are crying with them, they feel it’s ok.
How did you get involved with the project?
I found it on the internet through idealist.org. They were looking for personality types rather than specific skills. I think they had over 400 people apply.
After listening to so many interviews, it must feel strange when you’re being the one interviewed.
Yes, definitely. For me I’ve learned more about the interview process and how to be an interviewer. When I watch interviews I am hyper aware of what they are doing, what they are trying to get to, what tactics they are trying to employ to get whatever type of information they are trying to get.
What do you think makes a good interviewer?
It’s listening to what’s there and even if you have one place that you have in mind going, it’s to not be afraid to get off that track and go wherever.
Imagine changing hats for a moment and pretend you are a participant in StoryCorps, rather than a facilitator. Who would you want to interview you and what story would you tell?
One person who I think is a great interviewer is Reggie Gaines. He is a really good friend of mine that I’ve worked with a lot. He is just so inquisitive and I know he would ask me stuff and totally throw me off. And, I already interviewed him.
I think I would talk about the importance of art and how it fits into my life, because I really feel passionate about my work with inner city youth. I really feel that cultivating things like the arts or yoga or mediation are important because they are the things that are going to keep our youth from becoming part of the system that people get trapped in. I know because I grew up in the same place, dealing with the same situations.
How did you avoid getting trapped in the system?
I was very into music and auditioned for professional theater at a very young age. I was performing at Lincoln Center when I was 16. I had abilities and luckily, I had opportunities and I had people that cared enough to show me there were alternatives. I know that saved me because a lot of my friends are either dead or in jail - those are really easy paths to follow. It’s not that I’m out of touch with where I came from, but it helped put me on a path that required discipline and focus and that can change your life sometimes. When you’re not taught self-discipline, it is very difficult to focus. There are so many things out of your control in your environment. I was really lucky.
One such program that you are involved with that helps youth, is the Lineage Project. It’s a program where you conduct yoga and meditation classes with incarcerated youth. How did you get involved with this program?
I had been dabbling in yoga and meditation for many years and went to see the founder of the project, Soren Gordhamer, speak at a meditation in Central Park. After I heard about the program, I thought, wow this is exactly what we need.
When I had gone into yoga or mediation communities, I thought they were so out of touch with the type of lifestyle that normal people have that don’t have the privilege to go sit in an ashram. Growing up in New York, yoga is something for people who have money. It wasn’t accessible in my community. I thought it was amazing that he was bringing these good practices into the community. I just felt like that was something I wanted to be a part of.
Do you actually go into jails?
We’ve been having some problems with funding, so we’ve been going to the two main detention centers up in the South Bronx, Horizon and Bridges. Bridges is like central booking, everybody goes through there.
What are the kids like?
The kids’ crimes range from truancy to murder, but we don’t have any knowledge of the charges. Some of them will come back out within a week. Bridges is kind of a scary place. It’s got a lot of history and a lot of the kids are scared when they are there.
Can you tell you're making a difference?
There are some days when things are completely out of control and you just have to let go and realize you’re not going to get done what you’re trying to get done. But, there are also beautiful moments.
Sometimes you get a group of 20 boys and you have them all in a meditation and it’s just so amazing. You look around and they are all completely focused and the same group might have been bouncing off the walls 10 minutes ago.
I know the benefit of having that type of experience from being a practitioner. I know that most people get something from it. You never really know where the benefit will be in these kids’ lives, like some of them might start meditating immediately and some of them years down the line might rediscover it. We can’t really track the progress because we can’t know their last names and we can’t have contact with them unless they contact us. But you can feel it, I mean just the fact that sometimes you walk in and there is a lot of anger and a lot pain and a lot of contempt, but by the time you leave, everybody is really at peace, even if it is only for that moment. That’s a lot of what it’s about, how can you get happiness and peace out of this moment.
How many times do you interact with the kids?
It depends. We never really know. It’s always in flux because the kids are moving around all the time.
Right now we are also working in the group homes. After the detention center they might not a have a good family situation to go back to so they end up in the group home. There we run into kids from Horizon that we knew. And, sometimes we run into them on the street.
We realize you can’t really track the kids, but are you aware of any success stories?
We have one person that’s working with us, Miguel. He was actually incarcerated. He wasn’t one of my students, but he had been exposed to the Lineage Program and after he was released he actually sought it out and started working with us.
We’d also like to talk about your poetry, especially since April is national poetry month. What makes this month different from other months?
It just means more gigs and more money coming in. But I will say I get more gigs during national Latino month than poetry month. It works out a little better for me, not that I think it’s important to be a Latino one month a year either.
What’s your style of poetry?
I came out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the slam scene. It's like a competition. The whole def poetry jam thing grew out it. It’s spoken word, it’s not for the page.
I have worked a lot with Reggie Gaines and his style of writing has really influenced me. Also the poet
Miguel Algarian Rev. Pedro Pietri, who is one of the founder’s of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, he actually just passed. He was really influential on me just because he really didn’t give a shit about what anyone had to say. He did his own thing and he was his own character. He was really pure.
For me, poetry is performance too and it’s about music. I hear rhythms and it’s like improvisational jazz.
What subjects do you explore through your poetry?
I talk a lot about urban issues. About the problems in our community. The things that I feel need attention. I am also very interested in mythology all over the world, like different cultures mythology. I feel that we are always repeating the past and things go in cycles. I talk about real people. Like if your father is incarcerated, chances are you are going to end up incarcerated too. I have a friend who’s father is in jail, the son is not in jail, but how are you going to end the cycle of being incarcerated. Why do you think the son is not going to go to jail when the father is in jail?
I also talk about spirituality, about awareness and the things that are going on in the world. And I write love poems, you gotta write love poems sometimes.
You also teach poetry. What’s your method?
I teach that everybody has something important to say and you never really know how much you have in common with the people around you. I teach the kids to find their own voice, to not worry about what other people sound like and to be honest about their experience.
You talked about how you see poetry musically and that you are also vocalist. What is your background in music?
I had been a vocalist at a young age. I went to the Boston Conservatory to study classically. I learned how to sing opera because I knew if you could sing opera, you could sing anything. But, I found out how much I really didn’t want to be an opera singer. Then I went on to the Berkeley College of Music and got into jazz.
For a while I was with this big band here in the city, Delphian Jazz Orchestra, and we did jazz and poetry. That was really fun, having that much power behind me. We played at the Knitting Factory and the Nuyorican Poet’s Café.
And your performance art…
I have been involved with The Kitchen a lot. I have participated in a summer institute there with artists like Ann Carlson, Trisha Brown and Elizabeth Streb.
I’m looking to put together a piece now. It could be in a gallery or on stage and it would blend a lot of different of elements.
You obviously don’t make a ton of money doing what you do. What motivates you? What keeps you going?
Faith. It’s like allowing God to work through me. It’s not like I’m really religious. I am spiritual. I really believe that we are all given gifts and that when you use the gifts in a positive manner you’ll be taken care of.
I work like crazy, all the time and everywhere. We always laugh that I’m a true Puerto Rican, like that’s what Puerto Rican’s do, odd jobs. I feel that as long as I am doing the things that I love and that will have an impact, especially like StoryCorps because you never know how it will change someone’s life, I’ll continue to be inspired. It’s pretty stressful working this way, but I just say a prayer and write my check and it always works out.
We’ve talked a lot about your interest in urban issues and helping youth and the community you grew up in. What exactly do you see the problem being?
It’s the socio-economic status of a lot of people in this city. I know a lot of people that have been disenfranchised. I know a lot of it falls on the blacks and Latinos, because they don’t have the money and don’t have the opportunities and are put in these social situations. If you are born into the projects, you learn a very different lifestyle and it’s really difficult to get out of it. The way the ghettos exist today, people have no choice, it’s like kill or be killed.
Programs help people to a point, but until we change the way society works and stop pushing certain members of society into certain places and only offer certain opportunities or not offer any opportunities, I just feel like the cycles are just going to repeat.
We spend like $137,000/year on incarcerated youth, if we spent half that on each youth’s education, we would have a completely different result.
Parents are stressed out because of the issues they’re facing, jobs, etc., households are chaotic, and so kids don’t have the environment that’s going to nurture them.
It’s really such a big problem. The best you can do is whatever your contribution can be. And if my contribution is to help a few kids through music or meditation, maybe they will come back as doctors or lawyers or politicians or some kind of thing that might be able to focus in on the problems. You never really know what will make the difference.
And these problems, it sounds like you don’t think it would get any better even if there was a changing of the guard politically…
No, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve seen that there are ways to handle some of these topics. I was recently in Copenhagen performing and they don’t have this kind of situation. Yes, they have high taxes, but the government makes sure that everybody is taken care of, there are no homeless, and there is no crime. Everybody rides bicycles because it is too expensive to have a car. And everybody’s bicycles are sitting outside all the shops and nobody is stealing them.
The distribution of wealth is just so out of proportion here. For example, raising the subway fares really only makes it difficult for the people that make the least amount of money. People that take cabs everywhere they go are not affected by that. It’s the poorest of the poor that suffer.
And then a lot of it has to do with racial issues. I know New York is one of the most integrated places racially compared to other places, like in the South there is still unofficial segregation. But, there are still not the same job opportunities. I have a lot of friends that are African-American who cannot get a job. People don’t think that would really happen but it does. I know people who get interviews after interviews and don’t get the job after they show up. What reason do they have if the qualifications are there. Why is it that the black man can never seem to get the job?
I work a lot in non-profits, because they do celebrate diversity. But if you go into other fields that are not as liberal, it’s really difficult. You have to be exceptional. You can’t just be good at the job, you have to be absolutely outstanding at the job, you have to work extra hard.
I just see from the people that I know that are unemployed right now, the struggles that they are having, how can it not be a racial issue, when they go in for so many interviews and don’t get the job. You’d think things would be different.