Alchemy: Storytelling that touches the soul
March 02, 2015
Members of the first core group at Alchemy: Marlon Oden, Imani Scruggs, Charlie Williams, Brandyn Costa. Shawn Taylor, Marquise Fowler
Brandyn Costa arrived fully prepared with a written reflection for an interview about his experience in a youth mentoring program. It merely took one question for him to go off script, speaking passionately and authentically about the journey that helped shaped him into the successful young man that he is today.
Numerous national studies show disproportionate rates of poor health, inadequate education, high unemployment, and incarceration among urban adolescent males. Local high school and college graduation rates provide stark evidence of the racial achievement gap among student populations.
Costa is one of many young African American males in Akron who have benefited from mentorship by Alchemy, Inc. Alchemy is a program that uses the power of mythological storytelling to the beat of an African drum to create a safe place for urban adolescent males to develop a sense of purpose in life, and successfully function as members of a family, school, and community.
The second core group. Many of these young men are now entering their fourth and fifth year with Alchemy.
“Being able to understand myth enhanced my ability to think analytically and to problem solve,” said Costa. “It also really helped me to understand the collective human experience, and through that I was able to better connect to the people around me."
The analysis of mythology emerged as a tool to engage adolescents when Dr. Kwame Scruggs, founder of Alchemy, was working with high school drop-outs. “One of the biggest challenges was to get the students to open up about their feelings,” said Scruggs.
Scruggs developed a strong interest in mythology prior to earning his masters and doctorate degrees in mythological studies. He adapted the theoretical concept of several experts, including Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey,” and tested the approach on his students.
After interpreting the story, The Water of Life with a group of hard-to-reach adolescents, the young men took it upon themselves to share a story about the last time they cried. This was one of the defining moments where Scruggs knew mythology was the key to create a loving place where urban adolescents can begin to explore their wounds.
With this experience, a compelling youth mentoring program was born. Since its inception in 2003, Scruggs and his small team have provided in-school mentoring and workshops to over 1,750 elementary, middle, and high school-age urban youth.
The sacred circle at an Alchemy session
A typical Alchemy session begins by forming a tight circle. Then, Scruggs and his team of facilitators tell a story to the beat of the drum. Each student shares their interpretation of the myth with their peers in the circle and writes their thoughts in a journal.
The young men are able to explore personal development through the interpretation of myth and sharing. “There’s no right or wrong answer,” said Scruggs. “And there’s an understanding that nothing they say will leave the circle. ”
“I saw it was possible to view my own life through a mythological lens,” Costa recounts. "By first understanding and then replicating the character traits of the hero I was able to strategically manipulate and face life dilemmas in a way that would ultimately enhance my chances of success. ”
This sense of oneness, or temenos, established in a group setting and enhanced by a sacred circle, provides order and purpose. At the end of the day, it’s all about becoming the hero within their own stories.
“The analysis of myth is one of the highest levels of critical thinking,” said Scruggs. Through the myths, the youth explore feelings of separation, unknown environments, trials and tribulations, and the return home, thus finding a purpose.
The newest cohort of sixth graders jot down their thoughts in journals at Crouse Community Learning Center
One of the most notable things about Alchemy is the longevity of the program. The newest cohort of sixth graders at Crouse and Innes Community Learning Centers, and Litchfield Middle School will participate in Alchemy sessions for 22 weeks during the school year and then continue the relationship for a minimum of seven years.
“These students are special. They are engaged and excited,” said Scruggs of the new core group. “They love the myths and really enjoy being in Alchemy. We are so blessed to have them in our lives."
14 of the 28 members in the first core group are soon to be college graduates, with two already in graduate school.
One of those soon-to-be college graduates is Costa. An Akron native and a senior Political Science student at The University of Akron, he joined Alchemy as a sophomore at Copley High School not quite sure what to expect. Unbeknownst to him, the impact of this program will help guide and follow him- quite literally – for the next several years of his life.
Costa is one of six African-American college students mentored by Alchemy featured in the award-winning documentary, Finding the Gold Within by Karina Epperlein.
Finding the Gold Within follows six youth from the Alchemy program.
Epperlein followed Costa and his peers over the period of four years, documenting their growth and challenges. “Each of them is hell-bent on disproving society’s stereotypes and low expectations,” Epperlein told Mimi Vanderhaven.
The film was featured in the Mill Valley Film Festival and will premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival screening at the Akron-Summit Public Library this month.
Bandyn Costa. Past Alchemy participant and current member of the board of directors
Costa, newly appointed to the Alchemy board of directors, has received national recognition as a result of the film, but stays grounded, constantly drawing from the life lessons he learned in Alchemy.
“One of the themes within the myths is that when the hero goes on his journey, there’s always this return home,” he said.
“It means nothing if the cycle isn’t continued. ”