A person with dark skin and face-framing locs smiles. They are wearing a brown sweatshirt, and white collared shirt. There are trees in the background.By: Sue Blaustein

Do you know about the Public Allies to Ex Fabula pipeline? We hear so much about “school to work” and “school to prison” pipelines. It’s an image that conjures the delivery of young people to institutions and jobs that kill joy and squander potential. But the relationship between Public Allies and Ex Fabula is a different animal altogether.

The close relationship between these two nonprofits has given Ex Fabula first one (Michaela Lacy) and now another Youth Engagement Specialist – JJ Draper. JJ took the time to sit with me and answer questions about Ex Fabula’s youth programming. Some of the best times I’ve had attending and blogging slams have been events that included or centered young tellers. I wanted to learn more.

First – the pipeline! During her stint at Public Allies, Michaela Lacy was placed at Ex Fabula. Upon graduation from Public Allies, she was hired on as Ex Fabula’s first Youth Engagement Specialist. JJ was in the 2020-21 Public Allies Cohort and arrived to do the same, just as Ex Fabula had to go virtual thanks to COVID. JJ’s first taste of Ex Fabula life was serving on the Zoom ultrashort team.

They left town after Public Allies, staying with family members in the Dallas area. JJ is Milwaukee born and raised and chose to come back last April. They followed the pipeline to succeed Michaela, who’d returned to Public Allies in a leadership position.

JJ described their experiences partnering with non-profits – Reflo, COA, Teens Grow Greens, and ACLU; schools – Highland Community and Bradley Tech; an afterschool program at Journey House and a correctional setting – the Vel Phillips Center.

JJ and the others creatively mix, match, and adapt formats – combining workshops, coaching, opening exercises, and icebreakers. Their toolkit includes “I am” poems, identity maps, story bingo, and the standard workshop exercises that help tellers find and refine their stories.

Story sharing might be part of a class, conference, or slam. Schedules and facilities are dictated by the needs of partnering organizations, but JJ is firm that everything they do is based on what the youth participants need and ask for.

JJ observed that young people spend most of their time in places where they’re told what’s going to happen and what they must do. As the Youth Engagement Specialist, JJ sees their role as creating a space and experience where youth articulate their own needs, using the tools Ex Fabula offers.

At Reflo, participants reflected on what “green and healthy spaces” mean to them and presented at the Green and Healthy Schools Conference (shown in snapshots above). One young woman talked about finding a bird killed after striking the window at her home. She researched ways to modify windows to prevent these incidents and explained how she felt about having the power to intervene. Another participant shared how the purpose and camaraderie he discovered in the Cream City Conservation Corps alleviated his loneliness at home with a distant stepfather.

When Bradley Tech asked Ex Fabula to be part of Career Day, JJ and the team paused. One-off events aren’t the highest priority. But improvisation and flexibility rule! JJ and coach DeShawn Ewing presented to a journalism class about using storytelling to discover your passion. They offered some prompts to help students speak their own goals out loud – to own a business, to do hair…the consistent thread: what do you want to do?

At the Vel Phillips Center, coaches worked virtually, then in-person with youth exploring identity and self-advocacy.Again, JJ and the team brought the tools and structure. Who am I? What do I stand for? How can I assert myself and grow?

When JJ and their team worked with the ACLU Summer Justice Institute at UWM, COVID reared its spiky little head again, sidelining them for part of the week’s programming. The institute culminated in a slam with the theme of advocacy. Ex Fabula coaches helped students talk about times they advocated for a cause. One student talked about canvassing, another about being part of a Black Lives Matter program. JJ observed how the stories built bonds between attendees who hadn’t known each other before.

Ex Fabula’s weekly radio program “Real Stories MKE” is engaging youth in a different way – partnering with MKE REC to employ two student interns who will work with Kim Shine and Joel Dresang to produce their own “Real Stories” shows.

JJ’s wide-ranging interests, education and commitment to social justice make them a perfect fit for Ex Fabula’s mission. It’s JJ’s mission too. JJ’s a Rufus King graduate who pursued psychology, media studies, community engagement and gender studies at Southern Illinois University then UWM. They are well aware of barriers and shortcomings in the nonprofit sector, but JJ wouldn’t work anywhere else.

JJ feels their Ex Fabula role – as well as work co-founding and nurturing The Butterfly Collective (an advocacy and mutual aid group for Black and Brown Trans and gender non-conforming folks) – allows them to exercise their full range of leadership and creative problem-solving skills.

They stated I am a firm believer that one enthusiastic YES can change someone’s life…It’s fitting that their job title is a Y.E.S. In a world full of people saying yeah but, JJ and their team are applying the creative, affirmative law of improv troupes – Yes, and… changing young lives for the better.