Paul Nguyen (right) and his team.
Paul Nguyen (right) and his team.

By Franklin Abbott

Paul Nguyen grew up in Sandy Springs as one of five siblings. He says their father taught them all how to play the piano and music became the way in which Nguyen could best express himself. He participated in a Volunteer Emory spring break program that immersed students in the life and culture of homeless shelters. He found out that disproportionate number of homeless youth were LGBTQ and that they were often in homeless shelters longer than their non-LGBTQ peers. He wondered what the experience would be like and what would give him personal solace. His process deepened after a difficult coming out process with his own family and his connection to music became even more essential.

Nguyen, who has a double major in music composition and neuroscience, founded Art Works, a group of Emory students and alumni, who work to convert stories into art. Art Works’ first project explores the role of collaborative art on the self-empowerment of LGBTQ youth in an Atlanta homeless shelter. Nguyen’s team includes writers Adna Jaganjac and Gaby Arifin; musicians Dan Martin and Erin Baker, steppers from Emory’s Ngambica step group, Ayana Bohanan and Kaela Kuitchuoua; and a filmmaker, Bria Goeller. Together they collaborate with homeless youth to help them tell their story. The identities of their clients are anonymous and the story is told in silhouettes, with hands, feet, rhythm and voices. Nguyen wanted to create something tangible, a keepsake, for the clients and volunteers to take away. A short film was made to share at the Break-the-Cycle Conference.


The film centers on a client’s experiences of strength and vulnerability and is based on her poem “A Bed of Strength.” Nguyen and his team engaged their clients in a variety of exercises to help them find their creative voices. One of the exercises was centered on the question, if you had ten seconds to say anything to the world and they had to listen what would it be? One of the responses was the poem that became the centerpiece of the film. The poem and the film shows how a young homeless person wrestles with what her true strength is. Does it come from a facade of toughness or does it arise out of a more vulnerable knowing of self?

This is the first of what Nguyen hopes will be ongoing collaborations between Art Works and marginalized communities. The film will premier at the Break-the-Cycle Conference on April 18 at Emory University at 4 pm at Health Research Sciences Building on the first floor in Rollins Auditorium, 1760 Haygood Dr. The conference, which explores solutions for disadvantage and disability, is free and open to the public.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.