It helps harness creativity and support mental health in a safe space at NJ Pride

Leticia Viloria started the virtual class with questions, some laughs, and a different task for each of the 16 participants.

“Create a story using only the words you’ve composed,” Viloria told one of the participants. Another told, “Say hi or introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.”

She encouraged everyone on the Zoom call to include their pronouns next to their names. Filoria is she/them, and she identifies as a savage. This means that she is attracted to any gender.

The 39-year-old mother, writer and musician from Milltown said the assignment was to make room for the most non-stressful forms of creativity and support mental health.

“A lot of us have things in common with the way we were raised and told about important things to do,” she said.

Filoria is the Leader of the Creative Voice Group Pride Center of New Jersey in Highland Park. She welcomes everyone to class, as she emphasizes the importance of art and examines ideas through constructive feedback. He then asks a series of questions to each participant who uses them to talk through their creative process.

Filoria Creative Voice started in 2020 to teach marginalized communities to express themselves. Anyone can attend, but mostly performers with a range of gender identities make up the classroom, a safe space for people seeking creative release and a chance to connect with others like themselves without judgment.

Erica May McNicol, comedian at Suburbs of Pennsylvania He asked Phyloria to develop the class syllabus and was awarded $500 Grant to help after the two met during a comedy show in Philadelphia, where they performed.

“We wanted to focus on something that would engage adults in the community, especially adults who might not otherwise have access to online classes and creative outlets,” said May McNicol.

After the first session, Viloria said she realized she was fulfilling a need.

“People were crying,” she said, adding that she had to tell the participants that she was not a trained therapist.

The class is once a week, but many in the small, tight-knit group keep coming month after month.

“It’s a great show,” said Patricia Nagel, vice president of development and programming at Pride Center. “At the center of pride, it’s unlike any other group we have.”

Stephanie Wobensmith, 39, of Ottawa, Canada, joined Creative Voice in January 2021.

“I was very new to drag when I found Leticia’s group,” said Wobensmith, who defines himself as the king of the non-duo drag, opening the shows with a palette of masculinity and adding feminine touches.

Wobensmith added, “Creative Voice helped me dedicate two hours each week towards my creative process…with a group of creative people.” “Through this online course, I was able to make real friends with other creative people with different creative abilities.”

One of the tasks that Viloria gave Wobensmith was to “do absolutely nothing and deal with it”.

“Leetitia realized I was putting too much pressure on myself to be productive,” Woopensmith said. “And maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself… that if I didn’t get that end result. I would give up.”

Viloria was born in New York and her family is from the Dominican Republic. She is the first generation born in the United States.

In high school, she was introduced to theater, comedy, and writing as a means of self-expression during an internship at the Bowery Poetry Club.

“I was surrounded by many different people,” she said. “I did the spoken word. I sang. And then it just became comedic stuff, and after that I just started improvising things a lot on stage.”

Filoria later worked in Bowery Hair ClubShe met her partner Chris, got married in 2008 and moved to Pennsylvania suburb in 2009.

She began writing and performing through a local improv group but later left due to the prejudice she said she encountered.

“It was an experience getting people to say very biased things,” said Viloria. “The jokes will center around race and make fun of the LGBTQ community,” she said.

Found Filoria later Philly Ever Theater.

“In Philly, it was very diverse. There were whole LGBTQIA impromptu groups, so it felt more inclusive,” Filoria said. “And that was about the time I started to realize that I’m not just a person of color.”

Viloria said she recognized that she was part of the LBGTQ community but acknowledged that intersecting race and gender has been difficult at times.

“The goal was always to be myself, but I never really felt there were the right words” to define who I was, said Viloria. “And there was this fear of not being seen as enough to be in the LBGTQIA community.”

Viloria said she struggled visiting her family in the Dominican Republic. She said her 10-year-old son Jess “expresses himself in many different ways and dresses as he pleases”. “And I have a fear that we will go to the Dominican Republic and prosecute him.”

Fear is rooted in Phyloria’s past experiences. “I used to get some things in my face based on what I was wearing,” she said. “I’m going to be called ‘Joe,’ which is, I think, a way of calling a woman a man.”

“I don’t want to bring him into an environment of too much prejudice,” she said.

It’s part of the reason why Viloria is committed to creating a space like Creative Voice.

Wobensmith can attest to the effects of the reaffirmation that the class has.

“Leicia is one of those people with a big heart who is also a really great practitioner in his own right,” Wobensmith said. “Being able to bring people together in order to go out on their own creative journeys wherever they are is incredible.”

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