Published on Blue Ridge Public Radio, June 7, 2022 - As part of StoryCraft BPR’s partnership with Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community (AWITSC), we were introduced to Sharissa Thomason, a 16-year-old student at A-B Tech Community College. She’s been working with her mother, Melissa Henry, also known as Melody Sufia, and brother, Isa Whitaker to facilitate AWITSC’s Family Voices program. Sharissa’s been documenting the initiative for BPR - and ahead of a feature story she’s producing, we wanted to introduce you to this multi-talented community member.
What is Family Voices and what’s your role in the initiative?
Sharissa: Family Voices is a chance for families to get together and connect with each other through writing. In the afternoons after school, we work with the kids and help them begin to express themselves through writing and show them many different writing techniques they could use to do so. In the night session, we have their families come in, and we host a dinner and encourage them to work on writing together and also share those pieces with the entire group. In Family Voices, my role is to help guide people through their writing. I try to be someone who they can connect with, and when they ask questions, I am happy to respond knowing they are interested in what we are doing.
What do you love about writing?
What I love about being a writer is how it gives me the ability to express myself to the fullest. I have trouble trying to form my thoughts when talking, and I love that writing gives me the time to sit with my thoughts and write them down. I love how writing gives me a voice in a way that other art mediums don't.
You had an opportunity to work with NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green. Could you share a bit about that experience?
Sometime in the summer of 2019, I was invited to work with Jaki Shelton Green and a couple of other youth writers to work on a collaborative poem about a local creek. We went to the creek before writing about it. After we visited it, we spent some time discussing the creek, how it might feel, and what it means to the people around it and what they mean to it. After having this discussion, we listened to Jaki Shelton Green read a poem she had written about a body of water for inspiration and to see what was expected for this poem. After that we each wrote our own poem with the words of that poem and in the end combined all of ours together. This piece was made so that it could be put on the side of the creek to give the creek a voice and to connect the people who would be walking by it to the creek. After that experience, Jaki Shelton Green invited me and a couple of other youth writers to be Literary Change Makers and help to create a conference for youth writers. We went to Durham multiple times to have meetings and plan for this conference; when covid hit, we continued with zoom meetings, but eventually as covid worsened, we had to cancel the event, unfortunately.
You’re also a visual artist. What’s your artistic process?
When making an art piece, I have two different processes. The first is more common in sketching and painting. In this process, I just start working and see where the piece takes me. In the second, I usually take one of my sketches and renew it to fit how I am currently feeling or to work with a message I want to convey. I recently worked on a two-piece mural using acrylic paints. I made the top piece while my friend made the bottom. The work we created touches on mental health and how the mind affects the body. The top piece shows a number of girls in white dresses in a field of distorted flowers, sitting in front of a larger tree. The girls are all surrounding one girl who they are consuming. All of the girls in this piece are the same girl. The top piece symbolizes the mind and self-destructive thoughts. The bottom piece shows the head of the same girl in a swirl of blue. Her body is made up of many different colors extending from her head, similar to an octopus or jellyfish. The bottom piece represents the destruction of the body.
What have you pursued through AWITSC’s Word on the Street/La Voz de los Jóvene initiative?
I have been in Word on the Streets since 2018 and have had an abundance of different experiences since joining. I have interviewed countless people and been interviewed countless times. I have been asked to think about topics not usually presented normal to kids my age. I have been given the space to freely be with myself with no judgment and the freedom to express myself. I have learned to be brave and pursue my interests and try out new ideas. I taught myself to make many different clothing items, but it is a special joy to make pants. I like to see the transition from a big piece of fabric to a pair of pants. I enjoy seeing it coming together throughout the process. I would have to say my favorite pair of pants that I made is a black and white one that I made from a number of different pants. I cut up three different pairs of pants and pieced them together to make the new pants. I had a lot of fun creating them, and they came out beautifully.