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Fine Arts, Find Life: Teacher Makella Harris Heals Through Music

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By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times

The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown gave many time to reflect. For Makella Moore Harris, it gave her time to “connect with her creative energy on a different level,” she said.

That energy that gave birth to Fine Arts and Find Life (FAFL), a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization that aims to enhance the mental wellness of children in underserved communities through expressive arts and education. The group kicked off its Self-Care Sundays series on July 11; which is held on the second Sunday of every month.

“In my career, I frequently encounter children and adults dealing with childhood trauma,” said Harris, who has been a Birmingham City Schools (BCS) music educator for more than 16 years and Lawson State Community College adjunct humanities and music appreciation instructor for more than 13 years.

“Traumatic events—such as the passing of a family member or friend, or witnessing or experiencing sexual abuse, physical violence, car accidents, natural disasters, or bullying—are the sources of many impulsive behaviors teachers observe and deal with on a daily basis,” she said.

Harris believes fine arts have the ability to ignite imagination and enable the possibility of “learning life beyond those circumstances.”

Harris would like FAFL to serve as a mental health resource for “underserved, vulnerable communities” and collaborate with other local organizations that serve at-risk students to offer expressive art services, which refers to any combination of dance, writing, visual arts, drama, music, or other creative outlets.

“They’re fine arts modalities used in a therapeutic manner to enhance mental wellness,” she said, adding that she credits students with inspiring her come up with the organization.

“I am always considering ways to pour positivity and purpose into their lives,” Harris said.

Early Beginnings

Harris, 38, was born on the Fourth of July and grew up in Demopolis, Alabama, with her parents and older sister. Prior to moving in with her family at the age of 6, she lived in Tucson, Arizona, with her biological mother and two younger brothers. She and her brothers had been placed in an orphanage, where they stayed for a few weeks before her dad and grandparents “got wind of it,” she said.

“I always say, ‘God does not make mistakes,’” said Harris. “I am so thankful that I grew up in a home with a healthy, loving, environment, a place where I was nurtured and cultivated into the woman I am today.”

Harris went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in music business from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) and a Master of Arts degree in music education from Alabama State University, in addition to completing the Education Specialist in Instructional Leadership program at the University of Montevallo. She plans to begin her Doctor of Education in Educational and Organizational Leadership studies this fall at Samford University.
Harris’s first experience with music began at age 6, when she was in the choir at Gilfield Baptist Church in Demopolis. She sang soprano before “working up the nerve to sing solos,” she said.

As her passion for music grew, Harris joined the beginner band as a sixth grader at U.S. Jones Middle School in her hometown; she played the clarinet. Eventually, she received several scholarship opportunities, including one following a high school senior trip to AAMU in the fall of 1999. She auditioned for the music department and received a partial scholarship as a flute player. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to do a follow-up audition playing the oboe and earned a full-ride scholarship.

Healing Through Music

Harris believes music can do more than entertain—it has healing power, she said.

“[Greek philosophers] Aristotle and Plato created the ‘Doctrine of Ethos,’ which basically emphasizes music’s ability to effect character and emotion. … I know that to be true firsthand,” Harris said. “I feel that music is the purest form of medicine. Mental health is the foundation of a productive life. Sound mental health affords us the ability to show up as our best selves for ourselves and those we love.

“It enables us the bandwidth to deal with the various amounts of stress brought on by different situations and aspects of our careers and lives. It’s so important that we, especially minority populations, dispel the stigma that discourages any effort to utilize mental health resources.”

Harris doesn’t describe what she does as therapy.

“No, I am not a therapist,” she said. “I am an expressive arts facilitator who brings the creative process and multimodal expressive arts into a variety of environments. … We don’t diagnose or offer solutions; we focus on the story and the art.”

For Harris, music serves as her safe place, her “therapy.” And the FAFL board is made up of likeminded people.

“It wasn’t hard to find my team,” Harris said. “They are all people I know and have such profound respect for. I was very strategic about who I invited because it matters. I wanted them to be masters of their crafts, community oriented, professional, and polished, but most importantly kindhearted, good people who can work well with others. These folks possess all those qualities and more. I was honored when they answered the call to join me on this journey to do such important work in the community.”

FAFL board members include:

Sharifa Wip, interim chair, who is a mentor coordinator for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Office of Student Multicultural and Diversity Programs; Terralance De Shon Thurman, interim treasurer, who is an assistant vice president and system support analyst with Wells Fargo; Erica Jewel, founder Learning Little People, which provides tutoring and enrichment for youth in Birmingham; Roy S. Johnson, columnist and director of content development for Alabama Media Group/AL.com; and Aisha Cooper, chief operating officer and executive director of Stevens Home Healthcare Montgomery.

To learn more about Fine Arts Find Life, visit www.fineartsfindlife.com or follow at Fine Arts Find Life on Facebook and @fineartsfindlife on Instagram.

Updated at 2:14 p.m. on 8/5/2021 to clarify a sentence.