Spotlight on Rita Ezenwa-Okoro, Founder & Lead Visionary of Street Project Foundation
Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Tell us about yourself and the work that you do.
My name is Rita Ezenwa-Okoro. I am married to Ezenwa Okoro who was also an ISPA fellow and I am the youngest of six children. I graduated from the University of Lagos with a B.A. in Creative Arts where I specialized in theater arts with a focus on directing. My master's degree was in media and communications from Pan-Atlantic University, also in Lagos, Nigeria. I am the Founder and Lead Visionary of Street Project Foundation, which is a youth based, non-profit organization that uses performing arts as a tool to facilitate youth development and cross-culture dialogue as well as social mobilization. Street
Project Foundation is what I call “my baby” because it is a dream that I have had since I left university.
I am also the Principal Communications Consultant at Rita Omovbude Consult (R.O.C), a strategic communications company that serves non-profits and for-profit organizations. We provide world-class communication services that range from online marketing
to above-the-line communications – TV, radio, print, production and the rest of it all. I’m also a digital marketing trainer and a business coach. I have worked with She Leads Africa where I’m helping quite a number of women-led businesses get started.
I call myself a serial social entrepreneur.
Wow, a Rita of all trades! What inspired you to start an NGO that uses the performing arts as a tool to transform youths’ lives?
Studying creative arts at the university is what first inspired me. I was very active at the theater then, understudying a lot of directors. However, I was envisioning life focused as a performing artist after university in a country like Nigeria and it seemed very bleak. Hence, I began to explore what I could do with this degree. I had fun studying it, but what does the future hold? How can I make a sustainable living doing what I love?
The second thing is that as the youngest of six children, I was able to observe and explore what worked for my siblings and what didn’t. What didn’t work for them is that every single one of them studied courses they had no business studying. The first-born studied law and her passion was in fashion, the second studied economics and her passion was in culinary arts, the third studied microbiology and her passion was in the beauty industry, the fourth studied zoology, but he’s been a visual artist since he was a kid, and the fifth born studied public management and he should have been an actor. It seemed like a cycle and after graduating, they found it difficult to get a job, and even when they eventually got a job, they weren’t fulfilled, and I really didn’t want that to be my trajectory. To a large extent, it influenced the thought process that went into the creation of Street Project Foundation because I watched my siblings waste a lot of time studying subjects, they weren’t passionate about. They were all arts inclined and the reason they started venturing into the sciences or law was because in this part of the world, being a performing artist or being in the creative field wasn’t a prestigious thing to do. The truth is I probably would have followed their same pattern had it not been for some level of divine providence that led me to study my passion. Just as I began my studies, the University of Lagos created the Department of Creative Arts and starting the first year of my studies, opportunities opened up for me that were beyond my imagination.
My first year, I got the opportunity to be part of the cast of Alliance Francaise’s Robetto Zucco and I was chosen to be a lead actor, so the whole desire for me to change course disappeared. I felt so comfortable studying the creative arts, so I knew that this was what I needed to do. I was studying something I loved, and that satisfaction alone was the first step towards the journey of creating Street Project which wasn’t thought of at the time. I graduated from university at the top of my class and the next thing I thought of was what’s next? What’s going to happen? One conscious decision I made was I wasn’t going to come out of this university and start looking for a bank job, not that that’s a bad thing. I made a conscious decision that I was going to pursue a job or career doing something I loved. My first stint was at a recording studio and I started learning how to become a sound engineer (since I sing as well). It was while I was working there that I found out about advertising. No one had come into my school and told me that I could make a living writing plays or adverts, writing music or songs to sell products or services to people – I didn’t know that, but it was being in the studio and learning how to be a sound engineer that I found out that opportunity existed, so I got into advertising in the process.
While I was in advertising, I was able to connect a lot of my strengths to the training I received while studying the creative arts, so the discipline of improvisation teaches you critical thinking skills. With advertising, you’re thinking on your feet, you’re brainstorming, you’re creating, so all aspects of the brain keeps working. Drama teaches presentation skills and working with the theater crew teaches teambuilding. As a result, I really grew exponentially in my career in advertising and became a force to be reckoned with here in Nigeria. I could associate it with my life as a creative artist – I couldn’t separate it.
During that experience, I thought to myself, there are lots of young people here and the unemployment rate is on the rise. The population of Nigeria is over 200 million and 70% are under the age of 35 and a large number are unemployed. For me, it was how do I use performing arts as a tool to solve the developmental and unemployment problems we have in this country seeing that performing arts has to go beyond entertainment or arts for arts’ sake in a country like Nigeria where people are trying to survive, where people can barely pay the ticket fee to a professional theater performance. How do we use performing arts to develop the cognitive processes, the emotional thinking, and the physical development of young people such that they are prepared for the world of work, they are prepared for life, and they are prepared for leadership? That’s how it all started.
Will you tell us a little about the projects at Street Project Foundation?
One of the projects that we run is called the Creative Youth Bootcamp and what we do is look out for young, gifted youth who are between the ages of 16 to 25 years old. Gifted in music, dance, drama, visual arts, and even art forms that we haven’t seen or heard about. As long as you are creative, you are welcomed into that space. It is also very competitive because we can only accept 25 persons per cohort at a time. The beauty of the project is that the young people do not have to have a particular educational background. In short, if you’re from the streets, the better. That’s what we’re looking for - dropouts or young people from low income backgrounds. Quite a number of them studied courses that they knew from the start wasn’t what they should have studied. The essence of the camp isn’t to tell them that you have to start a career in the performing arts. We’d love that, but the essence is to use performing arts to prepare them for any venture they want to do in life. Quite a number of them still end up as professional performing artists who also have developed skills that enable them to work in the corporate world.
Our facilitators are seasoned performing artists in music, dance, drama, visual arts, and fashion. We also bring in business development, branding, and marketing – all of those things that would help them package themselves as artists and sell themselves as artists, so they can make a sustainable living doing what they love so that’s the essence. The truth is whatever your core art form, our students get to explore all of the other art forms. You can be a creative writer learning how to dance, or an actor learning brand management, so everyone explores everything. It is this process that develops their mind, and their team building, communication, and improvisation skills. There’s also one strategic class during the bootcamp called the reflection session, a therapeutic experience where we sit in a circle and talk about life in relation to what’s going on while they’re in the bootcamp: what are you becoming? What are you struggling with? As a result, they come up with solutions to the challenges they face such as extreme poverty and how they deal with that, and we’re getting them to think about how to transition from just having a mere talent to turning their talent into an enterprise. Those who graduate from the bootcamp become Street Project Ambassadors and they’re placed in internships and matched with mentors, so we do not just leave them after the six-week program.
Click here to view the graduation ceremony of the Creative Youth Bootcamp, including a talent showcase of every graduate (showcase begins at 49:12).
We also run Project Uplift, a project for young people who are living on the spectrum, for youth living with autism and down syndrome. The young people we have developed in the Creative Bootcamp become facilitators for those living on the spectrum. They come into the space and they give back and teach them all of the art forms they have learned and all of the art forms they have developed and are making a living doing, so we’re able to aid their development.Another project is called the Talent Hub which is a group of actresses who write scripts and perform them for an audience. The women in the group have experienced discrimination, faced rape and/or gender-based violence, or even challenges in politics.
The last one, but not the least is Digital Amazons which is also a women-only project. A lot of women are excluded from the development that’s happening in the creative digital space here in Nigeria such as photography, digital marketing, graphic design, and video editing, so we expose them to content development in general. When I was in advertising, I was in the creative unit and I was often the only female in the department as a copywriter and I was discriminated against and as a result, unable to move up to the level I wanted to which was creative director. That experience inspired Digital Amazons as I felt there were lots of young women who didn’t have mentors or people to help them move up to the level they needed to in the marketing and creative industry, so we run that project in collaboration with the committee of Women in Advertising (WIA) of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN). We are passionate about how we can raise the next generation of female creatives who can go on to become creative directors and leaders in that industry.
What are three key points or lessons that the pandemic has brought to light in your region and how do you envision your organization and the performing arts sector as emerging more resilient?
I think that the underdeveloped countries are most experienced in dealing with these pandemics because we’ve had them before. One lesson that covid-19 has taught us is to always be proactive. For some reason, we’ve tried as much as possible not to run our organization like everyone else here, so we’ve embraced both systems – working from home and working from the space. We’ve embraced digital forms even more so than before. Before the pandemic, we were actually somewhat prepared for operations as an organization, but definitely weren’t prepared for how to run bootcamps virtually. The pandemic made us accelerate in reinventing ourselves, and now we can run our bootcamps both physically and virtually.
When we started our bootcamp in March, we only ran that bootcamp for 2 weeks and had to suspend the bootcamp because of covid-19. I was devastated because we had reached a certain level. We were working with lots of people with physical disabilities, so people on clutches, the hearing impaired, etc., so not being in the space, I freaked out and the team freaked out, but we had to make the decision to work remotely for the safety of everyone and suspend in-person activities, but still engage with them while waiting for the possibility of reopening the bootcamp. Between March and July, we continued to engage with our rightsholders and all of our young people virtually and asked them what do you want us to do at this time? How can we engage you at this time?
There are also digital limitations in Nigeria. People who are from poor communities don’t have easy access to data, so we couldn’t have zoom meetings on a regular basis. The youth said the best way was to use WhatsApp, so imagine, how do you teach drama using WhatsApp? How do you teach dance using WhatsApp? How do you teach music using WhatsApp? Being in that box also accelerated our creativity, and sitting down with our faculty members, we considered how to teach the performing arts using a limited digital platform, but we did it.
Is that how the most recent group of youth completed and graduated from the bootcamp?
Yes, that was how they graduated. The truth was that the period between March and July gave us enough time to engage with them, to determine the art forms, and how to use WhatsApp effectively, so we could then train our facilitators on how to use it effectively for drama, dance, music, and the visual arts. It meant a lot of them creating short videos that were easily downloadable. We also had the hearing impaired in our group so if we used audio, we had to interpret, so it was a very technical process, but we grew from the experience and they were able to graduate on zoom. We had our very first virtual graduation, so another lesson for us was that when there is a will, there is a way. That resilient spirit is with every staff member and even the graduates themselves have embraced. We grew astronomically.
The U.S. embassy shared a link to watch Hamilton during the July 4th weekend. I had a blast and it said a lot about how to transition from the stage to a digital platform. I recently went to see a play now that the lockdown has eased a bit, but it was only for 20 people because of the social distancing safety guidelines. These are the kinds of innovations that are happening in theaters here and people are also thinking about recording stage plays and having platforms like Netflix where theatergoers can subscribe and watch their theater performances, so digitally we’re thinking that way - how do we make theater viable in the age that we’re in right now?