An Afternoon at Room 13.

I don’t know if I was prepared when I left Sandton, one of the richest areas in all of Africa, to visit Soweto and the children of Room 13 at the St. Martins de Porres school. I was certainly excited, but I don’t think I was prepared for how deeply they would move me.

The vision of beaming smiles on the faces of children nestled among the artwork they’ve so proudly created, and the sound of these young artists supporting each other with cheers, snaps and claps, almost makes you forget the history of their struggle. But only for the shortest of moments.

Soweto, short for “South Western Townships,” borders the city of Johannesburg to the southwest along the mining belt. It is a suburb of Johannesburg, home to more than 1 million people (at least one third of Johannesburg’s total population) that is officially part of the Metropolitan Municipality, although that has not always been the case. It is predominately a lower-to-lower-middle-class area and is, according to the city of Jo’burg’s website, “the most populous black urban residential area in the country… setting trends in politics, fashion, music and dance.” It certainly resonates an undeniable spirit, culture and energy.

Perhaps the slice of history standing in starkest contrast to my visit with the kids at Room 13 is the Soweto Uprising. On June 16, 1976, peacefully protesting students took to the streets against apartheid and the enforcement of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in local schools. Police fired back with teargas and live bullets. Hundreds of schoolchildren were killed on that day, a day known as “Youth Day,” now a public holiday in South Africa. The memories of these fallen students are honored with the credit of paving the way toward a more democratic future for South Africa.

Today in Soweto, there is Room 13. Creativity abounds here as demonstrated by the small group of student artists who gave us a tour, navigating a path through the art supplies on the floor, on shelves and tables, in containers and on the walls. They delighted in showing us the tie-died and printed t-shirts, handcrafted mosaic mirrors, clay jewelry boxes and sculptures, paintings, drawings, knitting, crochet and jewelry they had made. Their smiles bore pride and excitement to share their creations.

Outside the room, students gathered for a free Poetry Slam event. They all sat in chairs facing a stage and a microphone for those brave enough to raise a voice. The kids heckled each other lovingly, giggled and shared knowing looks as each one got up to recite a poem, sing a song or act out a play. Every young face on stage and throughout the audience was a beautiful face full of hope and promise.

No matter where you are in the world, whether in the professional setting of an advertising agency, or a room full of children and art supplies, the ability to express oneself and create art, to bring an idea to life and to share it with others is empowering.

It brings a smile to your face to witness this empowerment in the children of Soweto. For me, a smile I could not peel off.

Check out some photos of Room 13 at the St. Martins de Porres School:
Watch a quick recap of our afternoon at Room 13 in Soweto:

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