Youth empowerment through art in Nigeria: Meet Rita and Ezenwa

Challenging the complexities of youth empowerment, Rita Ezenwa-Okoro and Ezenwa Okoro, the dynamic duo behind the Street Project Foundation in Nigeria, bring a unique blend of innovation to the field of citizen participation. Their organization is a beacon in using the creative arts to address vital issues like police brutality, gender-based violence, and youth political participation. This interview sheds light on their inventive approach, showcasing how the arts can serve as a powerful tool for advocacy and sparking meaningful social impact. Both Rita and Ezenwa are esteemed members of Missions Publiques’ Global Fellows programme.

Missions Publiques: What is the story behind the Street Project Foundation?

Rita: As an author, my background in grassroots, creative youth mobilization is detailed in my book, “Doing Being Becoming for the Love of the Creative Arts.” My journey began in my childhood, growing up in Festac Town, a community born from the arts. This town, established for the 1977 Black Arts Festival, brought together global artists like Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, and Stevie Wonder, showcasing Nigeria’s vibrant culture shortly after its independence in 1960.

My parents secured a home in Festac Town post-festival, which had a profound impact on my upbringing. The community’s end-of-year parties, where children performed dance and drama, were my first exposure to the arts. This experience was my unintentional initiation into the creative world.

During my teenage years, my involvement in church choirs and plays deepened. Initially, I aspired to follow in my family’s footsteps in law, but a twist of fate led me to study creative arts at the University of Lagos. This was a turning point; I discovered my true passion, where talent, education, and passion intersected. I thrived academically and creatively, participating in theater, music, and visual arts.

My final thesis on Epic Theater solidified my belief in the arts as a tool for social transformation. I realized how the arts had developed my communication, critical thinking, negotiation, and people relations skills through practical experience.

After university, during my mandatory youth service, I co-founded the One House Music Unit. We performed under bridges and in busy areas of Lagos, using music to promote unity and peace. This experience was a seed that grew into the Street Project Foundation. Initially religiously oriented as Street Praise, it evolved to focus on using the arts to address youth unemployment and juvenile delinquency, affecting Nigeria’s predominantly young population. The Street Project Foundation was born from a desire to make a difference, leveraging the transformative power of the arts to impact young lives and solve societal issues.

Ezenwa: The Street Project Foundation emerged from a pressing need to empower Nigeria’s youth, who are a significant but often overlooked demographic. In Nigeria, a country with over 200 million people, young people under the age of 35 make up over 70% of the population. Despite this, they have historically been marginalized in areas such as politics, social rights, and access to opportunities. Our mission at the Street Project Foundation is to harness the power of creative arts as a tool for social change, focusing on this vibrant yet underserved segment of our society. We aim to give them a voice and a platform to address the issues they face, from police brutality to gender-based violence, for example, using creative expression as their language.


Missions Publiques: How do you use the arts to tackle something as complex and entrenched as police brutality?

Ezenwa: Our strategy involves using theater and radio drama series to depict the realities of police brutality. These mediums allow us to tell compelling stories that resonate with the general public and policymakers. By dramatizing real-life scenarios, we create empathy and understanding, which are crucial for driving dialogue and change.

A great example is the ‘Not Too Young to Run’ campaign that we were a part of. This campaign saw us use theatre to advocate for lowering the age limit for political candidates. The campaign, which was a combination of many advocacy efforts by a consortium of civil society organizations, culminated in a constitutional amendment. This was a significant victory, as it opened the political arena to younger candidates in Nigeria, enhancing youth representation in governance.

Rita: The COVID-19 pandemic was pivotal, particularly for Gen Z in Nigeria. It coincided with a significant protest against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), known for its unjust treatment of young people, especially those in the creative community. The #EndSARS movement, catalyzed by social media, led to widespread, peaceful protests across Nigeria.

However, the protests ended tragically, especially at Lagos’s Lekki Tollgate, where many young protesters were killed or injured. This event was a turning point, revealing the strength and rights of young people but also the harsh reality of government suppression.

In response, we launched the ARTvocacy program (Art + Advocacy) to empower young voices through creative arts, a safer and more effective means of protest and advocacy. We started in 2021 in Abuja, teaching 25 young people about movement building, community organizing, and advocacy. They co-created short films, stage plays, and photo stories to amplify their causes. This model has since expanded to other Nigerian cities, with the aim to engage and influence governmental and policing bodies through artistic expression.

A critical part of our programming is our Reflection Sessions, based on the Social Therapeutics school of thought, which uses play and performance for human development, particularly addressing mental health. It’s about empowering young people holistically, enabling them to use their art for social transformation within their communities and beyond.

"Our approach places art at the center of social discourse, which is unique. Art transcends language and cultural barriers.

Rita and Ezenwa Okoro

Drivers of the Street Project Foundation

Missions Publiques: Can you tell us about your gender-based violence project?

Rita : Yes, this project started in Abuja during our participation in the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Our partnership with Oxfam’s gender desk in Nigeria exposed us to numerous stories of abuse. We used our reflection sessions to uncover similar experiences within our youth groups, leading to performances based on their real-life stories of abuse.

One of our first performances on this topic was profoundly cathartic, moving the audience to tears. We also engaged men in the community, challenging their perceptions and behaviors toward gender violence. Our plays and dance performances have consistently addressed this issue, as every boot camp we’ve run has revealed young people affected by abuse.

We’ve also staged plays for larger audiences, including policymakers and stakeholders like the Minister of Women Affairs. Our unique approach of developing stories organically through reflection sessions has been highly impactful, validating the depth and authenticity of our narratives.

We are initiating a new project focused on ending exploitative child domestic work in Lagos, Nigeria. We’re partnering with the Freedom Fund to work in two communities: Oworonshoki, a poverty-stricken area, and Festac Town, where I grew up. This project aims to raise awareness on both sides: in poor communities that supply child labor and in affluent areas that employ them. We will train 25 young advocates in Oworonshoki using the arts, helping them understand how to protect child domestic workers from harm and collaborate with local security agencies to protect children’s rights. This is a new venture for us, and we’re excited about the potential of using art to address such a critical issue.


Missions Publiques: How do you measure the impact of these artistic interventions?

Ezenwa: Our approach places art at the center of social discourse, which is unique. Art transcends language and cultural barriers, making it a powerful tool for engagement and education. It allows for a more emotive and empathetic understanding of issues, which is often missing in traditional forms of activism. This is particularly effective with youth, who are more responsive to creative forms of expression and dialogue.

Impact measurement is key to our work. While leaders from these agencies appreciate our work, genuine engagement beyond mere observation is challenging. Our next step is to find ways to influence real change by building our youths’ capacity to understand and engage with the key stakeholders through their art forms. The aim is to transition from performance viewing to meaningful dialogues. We look at both qualitative and quantitative metrics. This includes changes in community attitudes, increased engagement in social issues among the youth, and, importantly, policy changes influenced by our campaigns. We also track participation rates and feedback from our events to refine our approach continually.


Missions Publiques: Looking towards the future, what are your plans for the Street Project Foundation?

Rita: Establishing our first Black Box Theatre, which will serve as an avenue to spread our socially conscious messages at the community level. We also intend to expand our operations across the shores of Nigeria, fostering international exchanges.

Ezenwa: We plan to expand our reach, not just within Nigeria but also internationally. We’re exploring partnerships for cross-cultural exchanges to learn from and share our experiences with global communities. The goal is to create a worldwide network of youth empowered through the arts to advocate for social change. We believe in the power of the arts to transform societies, and we’re just getting started.

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