Danielle and Michael Jelks had both just begun living in a transitional housing program for former foster youth when they met.
Michael, who performs with the artist name “Mikol,” had just performed a piece of spoken word poetry, detailing his experiences with homelessness and with his faith, and he was walking to his car afterward when Danielle approached him.
“He just said some things that was just real, about trying to be the hope when he felt hopeless,” said Danielle. “I was just like, ‘Hey, this is speaking to me.’”
Over the next five years, their friendship grew, and in 2015, the two started dating. A couple years later, they were married.
Now living in Long Beach with their 4-year-old daughter, they are working to build their artistic careers with the help of Green Pines Media, an organization that assists former foster youth and other systems-impacted artists with monetizing their creativity.
Danielle currently works two jobs, while Michael juggles four, but the pair hope that this next year will bring sustainability to their artistic careers.
So far, Green Pines helped them sell music and other art, and has helped connect them with numerous opportunities to showcase their art. That’s where Green Pines shines, helping burgeoning artists—whose experiences mean they may not fit into traditional career paths—turn their art into a source of income.
It’s a logical next step for people like the Jelks, who say art sustained them through some of the toughest times in their lives.
“(Creativity) gave us an exodus from being just a statistic, another number,” said Michael. “They always quote the same statistic, that former foster youth or foster youth are either going to end up dead or in jail. And I feel like we found our voices through artistic expression.”
Danielle entered the foster care system at 6 years old, after living in a shelter with her siblings and her parents, who struggled with drug use. After briefly living with her paternal grandfather, Danielle and two of her four siblings moved into an aunt’s house in Pasadena.
It was a strict, religious household, she said, and growing up, Danielle felt as if she didn’t have the freedom to express and process what she had been through.
“Not feeling like I could talk to my auntie was a very scary place,” Danielle said. “Music pretty much saved my life.”
When she began to write, it became her voice, she said. Her first poem, written while Danielle was in the fifth grade, was about a lost girl trying to find her home.
At 17, Danielle ran away from her aunt’s house to live with her sister in Long Beach, where she stayed for a couple of years before ending up in United Friends of the Children’s transitional housing program.
Performing, however, came a little bit later for Danielle. When she first performed her work at a retreat for former foster youth, it felt like she was finally finding herself, she said.
“It was just so liberating,” Danielle said.
Michael’s entry into the foster care system came much earlier. When he was 6 months old, his mother, who dealt with substance abuse, was deemed unable to care for him, he said.
His first placement, where he remained for eight years, was with a white family. While he was treated as family, he still felt like an outsider in the predominantly white school and community where he grew up.
He always “had this foster label over me,” he said.
When Michael was later placed with a Black family, he still felt ostracized. He says he’d internalized “a deep hate for like my skin tone and my hair and everything because I just didn’t fit in. I just remember wishing to be white or whiter.”
In yet another home, he said, he was sexually abused by another child living there.
While cycling through other foster home placements, he began to create. Although he continued to question his identity even after he was emancipated at 19, he dove deeper into music, beginning to see all the things he had formerly hated about himself, as “superpowers” instead.
“When I began to create music and express myself creatively, it was a way for me to stand up and be like, on all of this stuff that they told me I couldn’t be, I can be,” Michael said.
Lives and art intertwine
Danielle first connected with Deena Saunders-Green, founder of Green Pines Media, at a social entrepreneurship mixer.
With the help of Saunders-Green’s organization, Danielle designed a piece of artwork and got a cut of the profits when it was printed on journals being sold by Green Pines. It was the first time anyone purchased art she’d created.
She then teamed up with Michael to record a song Green Pines helped them sell.
Michael has also gotten help from Green Pines in his musical career, for instance, getting the chance to travel to the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Danielle has since left her job in social work to strike out as an artist and entrepreneur.
“I’d rather be doing this, I’d rather be struggling in this, than struggling in corporate America, because at least it’s something I love to do,” she said.
For Michael, the sentiment is similar.
“We’re trying to hold up life while still trying to build a business and be creative,” he said. “I was made for creativity. Like, I cannot bury my gift anymore because if I do, I’m gonna go through life unsatisfied.”
To Danielle, her artistry is also a symbol of rebellion against the adversity she has faced.
“Being dark-skinned, being skinny, being tall—these are all things that were not popular back in the day,” Danielle said. “So when I stand up and I do a poem where I wear bright colors and I dress myself up, I am standing in boldness and rebellion against what this system and what people have told me, right, ‘You’re not important in this world.’”
Now, the Jelks are working to develop their brand as a family. They plan to offer creative services to other companies and artists.
Both Danielle and Michael say that their artistic identities are still developing. But hope is a key theme for them both.
“It’s been a long journey to find ourselves,” Michael said.