Artist Jamal Joseph gets prize for his own third act

Jamal Joseph, winner of a Purpose Prize, is seen in the handout photo July 11, 2015. REUTERS/Courtesy of

November 13, 2015

By Mark Miller

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The sound of gunshots in Harlem in 1997 was nothing new to Jamal Joseph, who was then a 44-year-old filmmaker living in the New York City neighborhood.

“You’d hear gunshots every night,” he recalled. “The crack epidemic was raging; the neighborhood was literally crumbling.”

But it became personal for Joseph when a 16-year-old boy who lived in his building was gunned down at a party.

“I had watched him grow up, and I knew his mother,” Joseph said. “Watching her grieve, I had an almost out-of-body experience.”

Joseph decided to do something to help Harlem, and he ended up adding a new chapter to his life by creating the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, a refuge from violence that has since attracted more than 1,500 young people to its programs in New York. Another 4,000 have participated in IMPACT-led workshops in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Joseph, now 62, was recognized on Friday with a 2015 Purpose Prize that comes with $25,000. It is one of six annual cash awards of $25,000 and $100,000 that San Francisco-based nonprofit distributes to trailblazers who are over age 60 and have tackled social problems creatively and effectively.

The other 2015 winners include a journalist who became an advocate for disabled children warehoused in abusive institutions around the world, an innovator in micro-lending and an Episcopal priest who created a music program aimed at addressing suicide and substance abuse among Alaskan native youth.


Joseph’s life story includes several acts. As a teenager in New York City, he became active in the Black Panther Party, participating in its political and community social service programs.

In 1981, he was convicted of taking part in the robbery of a Brink’s armored truck and spent 5-1/2 years in a federal penitentiary. There he earned two college degrees, started a performance group and wrote his first play, which was performed by inmates.

“I began to understand that you could use the creative arts for social change,” he said.

Joseph stayed focused on the arts after his release from prison in 1987, and he became a faculty member at Columbia University in 1998. Besides writing, directing and producing numerous films and documentaries, he authored a biography of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

For IMPACT, he started small, finding a community center willing to donate space. Within a year, 75 kids had joined.

Today, 12-to-18-year-olds study leadership, conflict resolution and time management alongside their creative writing and music sessions. The group also focuses on getting participants to finish high school and attend college.

IMPACT has performed at Lincoln Center and the United Nations, as well as at schools, prisons and nursing homes.

The song “Raise It Up,” from the 2007 film “August Rush,” which Joseph co-wrote, received an Academy Award nomination for best original song. The theater’s choir performed the song at the Oscars ceremony.

Joseph likes to call IMPACT’s work “artivism,” reflecting the mix of art and community engagement. And that reflects the arc of his own life.

“My first act was activism, and I paid a price for it,” he said. “My second act is an artist-educator – so this third act is bringing all those life experiences together – activism, education and working with young people.

“And it’s been the most rewarding of all.”

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn)