Interview by Carrie Beth Wallace, with a guest appearance by her son, Wade.
Images by J.M Photographics, courtesy of Georgia Humanities
Jonathan Perkins is an arts educator, playwright, and actor who recently won the Governor's Award for the Arts & Humanities. A Columbusite, Perkins has been featured numerous times in our publication over the years – primarily for his work as the founder of Fountain City Slam, a local
unprecedented non-profit organization built on the ideals of youth empowerment, creative expression, and community building through spoken word. The goal? To provide an educational and inspirational effect on local youth and families.
Fast forward to the last several years, and Perkins' work has expanded to teaching workshops, assemblies and conferences across the Southeast. His groundbreaking approach to using slam poetry to reach young people landed him a nomination, and eventually one of ten Governor's Awards for the Arts & Humanities.
We sat down with Perkins to learn all about his path to becoming one of this year's recipients, and what's in store for him next. Read on to learn all about this incredible arts educator from Columbus, and how one man's desire to operate in his purpose is having a ripple effect far beyond the banks of the Chattahoochee.
Q: Congratulations, Jonathan. This is such an honor to be celebrated, and certainly one that is very well-deserved. Can you tell me the process of how this came to be?
A: Thank you. I'm very grateful to have won. I was originally nominated by Crystal Pendleton Shahid, and then from there, each nomination went before their committee. They said it was a very competitive process, but they eventually chose 10 individuals and organizations across the state that have exhibited a lifetime impact on the arts and humanities. I was one of the individuals chosen.
Q: Yes! And how did that make you feel, Jonathan?
A: Well, it's very rewarding because, as you know, in the work that we do as artists and as writers, we don't often know instantly what our work is doing.We don't always know what the shelf life is going to look like. So, it's good to see that what I am doing is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. That I am operating in my purpose.
Q: In the past, you've talked about your family and specifically your father and how much encouragement he gave you about your work. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
A: Well, my dad has always been a man of few words. So whenever we presented anything to him, he would usually ask one of three questions: He would ask, "Are you okay?" "Are you happy?" Or, "What do you need?" Depending on what we were bringing to him, he'd always ask us one of those questions. So whenever I told him I wanted to be a poet or a teaching artist or an actor, his response was always, "What do you need?"
And then, he would do his best to provide whatever it was. It was such a gift to come from a family that was supporting of my work, and especially to have a father that was as encouraging as he was.
Q: That is incredibly special, and it's obvious your family has had an immensely positive influence on you. Your work makes that abundantly clear.
Speaking of your work, we've covered you in print, and on our website several times over the years, but can you give us an update on what all you're working on right now? I know the award came largely from your work with Fountain City Slam and teaching young people about using their voices through spoken word. But what are you currently working on?
A: Sure. So over the last few years, especially, during the pandemic, I've been called to do a lot more teaching artist work outside of the city. My work with Fountain City Slam led to me bringing many of the lessons and strategies it developed to lots of different school districts and organizations around the Southeast. I'm continuing to teach in lots of different places and am working to organize future residencies as well. In regards to Fountain City Slam, I've been working with the team here to start re-imaginging how we're going to continue existing here. We're always going to be here in Columbus, but something we learned during the pandemic was that while Slam is fun, a lot of kids aren't necessarily into the competition aspect. They just want an outlet to share themselves and their work with their community. So we definitely want to keep the slam piece there, but we'd also like to amplify the workshops and open mic opportunities for young people in Columbus.
At this point another writer entered into the conversation. My son, Wade, who was with me due to being out of school for the holidays, politely requested to ask Jonathan a question. Graciously, Jonathan agreed.
Q: (Wade) Mr. Perkins, what inspired you to do your job?
A: Well, I have been fortunate enough to have a great community and a great family to support me. And, as an artist and a middle child, I'm different. I'm unique. I call myself the unicorn of the family. I learn differently. I create differently. So as a teacher, and facilitator, I like to give students what I would've wanted and needed when I was their age.
Q: (CB) So, now that you've won this award, what's next?
A: I'm excited to keep teaching and exploring future residencies. I'm in Georgia a lot, but I've also been invited to teach workshops at the Brave Blue Voices Festival as well as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I've also done some conferences like the Southern Writer's Conference in North Carolina. So I do get out and I really enjoy teaching a variety of people around the Southeast. I look forward to more and more.
Specifically, I don't know what is next for me in the other areas of my artistry. I'm also a playwright and an actor, so I'm still looking to massage all of those muscles.I just don't know exactly what that will look like next, but I definitely am actively working towards doing more and more of it all.
Q: How many students would you guess that you reach a year?
A: Oh it's hard to say. Between workshops, assemblies, open mics, and all of that stuff I interface with a lot of young people every. year. And like I said, we learned in the pandemic that we've got to find some new ways where we can keep students hooked in. So over the last few years, I've gone younger. When I first started out, I pretty much just worked with strictly high school students. But now, we have the I Love Myself Project that we teach for middle grades. So between all of the middle and high school students and workshops and stuff? The number of students probably in the thousands.
Q: That's amazing, Jonathan. We are so fortunate to have you teaching in our state.
Is there anything else you'd like for our audience to know? I feel like you have your hands in so many things. Yes. So what's the most important thing that you want people to know about your work?
A: I would say the, the most important thing about all of the work I do... as a teaching artist, as a poet or an actor, is that I want to encourage people to realize the power of their voice and to choose to harness it for good in your community. Your community can be as big as Fountain City Coffee, or it could be as big as your street, or as big as the city or the state. However big you want to go. But realize you have the ability to make a difference. And it doesn't have to wait until next year, or until you're a certain age. You can do it tonight.
You know, there's so many different tools with social media where you could write a poem. Anyone can write a poem. That's a lot of what I teach is that we're all poets. We're all walking stories. We're all walking haikus. We all have a story to tell and if we don't tell it, who will?
When we tell our stories, people are better for it. Not just ourselves. You know, this is where we learn exactly how much we have in common. We can grow from there, we can heal from there. So I would say the biggest takeaway that I want people to have my work is to just, use your voice. Use your voice for positive change in your community. ◼️
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