by Kyle Cochrun
Kwame Scruggs makes a living viewing life through the lens of myth. He has an M.A. and a Ph.D in mythological studies from the Pacifica Graduate Institute and is the founder of Alchemy Inc., a non-profit program that mentors teenage boys in Akron by guiding them to examine their lives by studying and connecting with myths from various ancient cultures.
You can see him at work in Karina Epperlein’s documentary Finding The Gold Within, which follows six boys from Alchemy as they graduate high school and leave home to start their adult lives. A shot early in the film centers on Kwame during a workshop, hunched over a djembe drum with a clipboard and pen resting on top, wearing his red Alchemy Inc. t-shirt and speaking to a circle of mostly teenage boys sitting in metal folding chairs and also wearing Alchemy t-shirts.
“What is about to, quote/unquote, ‘die’ in your life?” Kwame asks the circle. “Are you bringing closure to it? What is coming to an end right now in your life? Anybody wanna speak on that?”
This is what Kwame calls “facilitating.” When the designated storyteller pauses from drumming on his djembe and reciting a myth aloud to the group, a facilitator makes comments and posits questions, urging group members to share life experiences that connect in some way to the myth. From Epperlein’s footage, it seems that as a facilitator Kwame mostly listens, a sign of how comfortable these teens are with the group.
“The essence of Alchemy is creating a safe space to discuss what is really going on in our lives, providing different perspectives through dialogue, which allows one to gather as much information about life in order that we can make better decisions,” says Kwame. “It is about incorporating the character traits of the hero into our own lives so that we may become the hero within our own story.”
Alchemy currently holds workshops in seven local schools: Firestone High School, Litchfield Middle School, Buchtel High School, Kenmore-Garfield High School, East High School, Barber Community Learning Center and Hyre Middle School. The program works with boys from sixth grade through twelfth and has recently expanded to include an all-girls group with three female facilitators.
Kwame launched the non-profit in 2003, and many of the original members, who started in sixth grade and stayed in the group through their high-school graduation in 2011, still occasionally return for workshops.
“I would always come back for events,” says Prescott Williams, one of the original members who started with the program in sixth grade. Prescott has known Kwame his whole life, having grown up across the street from Kwame’s parents’ house. He now works as a network engineer.
“I still consider myself part of Alchemy now. When I go back, it’s still the same as it’s always been.”
“We call each other family all the time,” says Aaron Carey, an original member who now works as a truck driver based out of Columbus. “We were able to learn about manhood and express our manhood as young men growing into it.”
Much of the time in a workshop circle is spent discussing what is currently affecting the lives of the youth members.
“The significance of interpretation is that it speaks to how you are experiencing a myth at that particular moment in your life,” Kwame says. “That’s why it is cool to revisit a myth to see if your answers or interpretations change. It is all according to what you have or are presently experiencing that influences how you will interpret a myth at any given time. A lot has to do with projection.”
From this perspective, Kwame is not an orator so much as a catalyst. Myths are his way to connect with the teens, getting them comfortable with voicing their problems and opening themselves to vulnerability so they can learn and mature.
“Myths are not just for putting children to sleep,” Kwame says. “They’re for waking up adults, too.”
Within half an hour of first meeting Kwame in his Copley apartment, he hands me a copy of his favorite book, the one that inspired him to use myths to connect with youth: Michael Meade’s Men and the Water of Life, a collection of ancient myths interspersed with analysis and personal anecdotes. I am the 174th person he has given this book to, though he admits that he’s forgotten to write down at least a few others over the years. On his jam-packed bookshelf, which takes up the entire back wall of his study, are eight hardback copies of Water of Life lined up in a row, their sheeny golden spines forming a sort of sutured block. Scruggs once dreamt of having eight copies of Water of Life on his bookshelf, and he took this dream to be an omen of sorts. When he gives away a copy, he replaces it on the shelf.
One of Kwame’s favorite myths from the book is “The Water of Life,” which is the first myth he covers with each new group of sixth graders. In the myth, a king becomes gravely ill. Two of his brash sons leave the kingdom separately in search of the water of life, which will heal the king and, more important to them, hopefully compel him to cede the kingdom to whichever son succeeds. Hard-headed and filled with bad intentions, both brothers find themselves lost on the way. They insult a dwarf who would have otherwise pointed them in the right direction.
After they fail, a third brother, who wishes more than anything to see his father cured, journeys out for the water of life. Along the way, he comes across the same dwarf and admits he does not know where he is going. The dwarf then guides him to the water of life and offers tools and advice that help him obtain it.
“It is important to let people know when something is wrong,” Kwame says, explaining why he finds the myth essential for sharing with new group members. “It’s important to get off your horse and admit that you don’t know where you’re going. Then you’ll be given everything you need.”
Kwame has a knack for sharing tidbits of wisdom in an off-handed, conversational way. For someone so passionate about storytelling, he is surprisingly concise. Not once during our interview does he lapse into long-windedness or come off as condescendingly erudite. He’s a down-to-earth dude who doesn’t say more than he needs to, whose intellect is delivered in a manner of speech both dignified and calm.
“Kwame is always calm,” says original Alchemy member Prescott Williams. “And he is always consistent with what he’s doing. He was always the same guy and always gave us what he said he was going to give us.”
“He is a mentor, a leader and a father figure,” adds Aaron Carey. “But altogether he’s an embracing guy, and he’s passionate about the youth.”
Kwame is currently reading The Way of the Image by Yoram Kaufmann, The Art of Inquiry by Elizabeth Nelson and Joseph Coppin and Awakening the Soul by Michael Meade. From all of these, he’s learning the importance of “living life based on what is important to our soul, our psyche. Living a life where life does not get in the way of living.”
When I ask him where he sees himself in five years, he says, “I really don’t know where I want to be. I used to think I knew but now I don’t,” and offers a quote from Oliver Cromwell: “No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”
Which is to say that Kwame continues to live out the advice passed down from “The Water of Life” — that, although he is a teacher, he is also perpetually a student of myth.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Used with permission from Kwame Scruggs.