By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN â€“ It seems that Samir Nichols has already lived a lifetime at 26, starting a nonprofit in his teens and having the ear of people sometimes more than twice his age as a commissioner on the Camden County Cultural Heritage Commission.
Nichols, the executive director of Camden’s Superior Arts Institute, said he sees the arts in the greater sense of reaching young people, addressing the concerns of the community and giving the people around him a different way to view issues.
Today, when it comes to Camden and the arts community, Nichols at his young age has become one of the most influential voices in the county, bridging the gap between young and old, community and government, and the creatives and, well, everyone else.
The Camden native has been able to do that and more while expanding his own knowledge of how the world works to benefit everyone around him.
“I learned policy and I learned how to navigate in good governance,” Nichols told Front Runner New Jersey recently. “Those are huge within my nonprofit. I’ve learned how to effectively utilize my board, how to effectively introduce certain things. I’m engaging more because I’m listening to what people concerns are and how do I navigate them.
“I’m doing work that has been translated into a program that I developed. The political work in the community work translates into a program under Superior Arts entitled ‘The advocacy of Acting,’ where we take real life situations and we put them into dramatic storytelling.”
Takes Matters Into His Own Hands
Nichols said he started Superior Arts after being accepted into Camden’s Creative Arts Academy and changing his major from acting to dance.
“I notice that there was a major disconnect for outside support for the dance and theater departments,” Nichols said. “When you looked at Camden’s artistic landscape at one point it was so underground people didn’t even know it existed. As a new dancer I was forced to leave the city to train, I started out at Halliday Dance (Pennsauken), then moved to Dance Sensation (Pennsauken), after that Eleone Dance Company (Philadelphia).
“I said all that to say I started Superior Arts out of a need, the need was dancers and actors should not have had to leave their city to have access to artist opportunities. My mission was clear. I was determined to create robust artistic opportunities inside my city while supporting the needs of artistic scholars myself.
“We started out meeting in my mother’s driveway, we eventually moved the rehearsals to my living room. I can recall moving all the furniture while my mom was working. I’ll never forget when she returned home she was livid, however, she knew it was for a great cause so she eventually supported the organized chaos I was making.”
The Community Activists Spirit
Nichols is an artist, first and foremost, who brings a community activist spirit to his works and awareness to community and social issues through theater arts. He refers to his self and his team as “gladiators in suits.”
Nichols said he is a firm believer that everyone has a dream and is entitled to live out that dream. He says he hopes to be a beacon of hope for young artistic pioneers to not only serve artistically, but civically as well.
“What I’ve learned over the years that you better know how to navigate relationships and that collaborations are the key to anyone’s success in any field, not just the arts,” Nichols said. “It is that understanding about the power of collaboration is what I’ve tried to accomplish over these years. I’ve learned to collaborate on all fronts, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
One of those collaborations matched Superior Arts with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations. The partnership resulted in a performing arts and community storytelling project centered around experiences of environmental injustice in Camden.
Town Hall: Resolution 50
That led to the play “Town Hall: Resolution 50,” which follows four Camden City high school students who share their experiences as young people of color affected by systems of injustice that ultimately challenge their quality of life. The play was so successful that it has been spun off into a series.
“There was a lot of environmental injustice faced in Camden, however, shining a light on it with four black students from Camden has been enlightening,” Nichols said. “In the play, their teacher tells them that they have to go to this town hall meeting and it sparked the conversation around civic engagement and the interest in a residential responsibility to getting things done at the helm of education.”
Then there is the trilogy “Blackology: 101,” the institute’s artistic statement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Blackology’s first component is targeted to high school students and their experience. Blackology 102 is targeted to college students and subsequently, their experience. Blackology 103 culminates with the black lived experience and seeks to capture how that experience aligned or misaligned with the American dream.
Through these creative experiences, Nichols said he is constantly learning â€“ learning from older people around him but younger people as well. He calls himself a “lifelong learner.”
”I did not realize you do it with the teaching, you’re already mentoring kids, you’re supporting their endeavors,” Nichols said. “It’s tough living up to expectations when the media will pull you and stretch you in every way.”
Young Creatives and Whole Family
Nichols said another lesson he has learned is the extension of young creatives have with the people around them and how that affects their work.
“It’s when I get to talk one on one with students and families and really get down to the personal of their artistic work,” Nichols said. “That is what I look forward to is when I get to help change the lives of those artists and young artistic leaders. I come with approach of helping the whole family.
“You’re not just helping that child; you’re not just helping the artists. I think that’s where the political side came in because you go into it not just wanting to help them with just getting better at dance or theater. Then you learn about their circumstances and the light bill is due, and it’s about to get shut off. You’re the only person to take their call and there’s one or two things you could do, you can reach into your pocket and give them the money or you can say hey, I know a few resources within the city.”
When asked who inspires him today, Nichols said crisis management expert Judy Smith, who was the inspiration for the television character Olivia Pope portrayed by Kerry Washington on the former television show “Scandal.”
“She is a national fixer and she’s a communications management expert in the field and anyone knows that knows me knows I love ‘Scandal,'” Nichols said. “I’ve learned so much from it in my political career as a case manager and navigating elections and working on policy here in the city.
“She is a true inspiration because anything is fixable. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, it can all be fixed and not just with a Band-Aid and some glue. She had the ‘power’ approach, an acronym for pinpoint the problem, own it, work it through, explore all options and then rein in the success.
“I take that in my personal life, whether it’s my approach to art, or whether it’s my approach to helping folks or whether it’s my approval process of taking on a campaign. It’s all of those are encompassed that power approach.”
Nichols said artistic inspirations include the creator of “Scandal” Shonda Rhimes and Oscar-nominated movie producer Spike Lee.
While he continues to learn, Nichols has come to represent the next generation who can think beyond themselves to see the bigger picture for his nonprofit, community and region. For that, he is writing his own script.
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