While other kids her age were learning new vocabulary words and basic math skills, Janasia Johnson was learning how to live without her mother.
At age 8, Johnson’s mother was sent to prison for second-degree murder, leaving the now-14-year-old to live with her three siblings, grandmother, aunt and two cousins.
“I grew up without a dad, and my mother was incarcerated; I didn’t know how to express myself,” Johnson said. “I was always angry.”
Last summer, as a way to cope with this anger, Johnson attended AileyCamp Miami, a six-week summer program that allows underserved students from Miami-Dade County, Florida, public middle schools to take dance classes, learn life skills and strengthen their self-esteem.
Johnson represented AileyCamp at the White House on Tuesday as the organization received the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, along with 11 other programs nationwide. First lady Michelle Obama congratulated Johnson, an eighth grader from North Miami Beach, Florida, at the event.
“We believe every single child has boundless promise, no matter who they are, where they come from or how much money their parents have,” Obama said. “These kids represent the very best of America.”
Being honored at the ceremony and meeting Obama was very exciting, Johnson said, adding that she hopes to one day open up to be as “open-hearted” as the first lady.
“It was very exciting, it showed me that there’s more out there,” Johnson said. “I can be anyone I want to be.”
Obama praised the youth program leaders for giving students a chance to succeed, even though many kids “think that places like this are not for them.”
“Through our programs, students have become poets and dancers and filmmakers and photographers, but more importantly, they’ve become leaders in their communities,” Obama said. “Together, they’ve learned the power of discipline, of hard work and teamwork.”
At AileyCamp, students learn about West African, jazz, modern and ballet dancing, and they take classes in subjects such as conflict resolution, drug prevention, creative communication and other areas of personal development. The program was established in 2008 and is run by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Johnson has used a specific creative outlet – poetry – since she was 8 years old as a way to express her feelings. In particular, there’s one quote, which came from author Robert Tew, which she said she’d always remember.
“Don’t let negative and toxic people rent a space in your mind,” she said. “Raise the rent and kick them out.”
Jessica Campisi: 202-383-6055, @jessiecampisi