ears ago, I was chatting with a 17-year-old who had landed his first summer job. The teen had been assigned to a job in the Compuware building downtown. When I asked him what his experience was like, his answer was simple yet profound.
"I had never been inside a huge office building before," he said. "I thought places like that were only on TV. I definitely didn't think they were in Detroit."
How can a young person dream when he or she has no concept of what is within reach?
That's where Jocelyn Rainey comes in. The local artist has made it her business to help Detroit youth understand that they are bigger than their circumstances. And nobody understands that more than Rainey herself.
A native Detroiter, she said she was "just floating through life with no plan" when she was caught in crossfire and suffered a gunshot wound to the neck.
"I was paralyzed for a year," says Rainey, who was in her 20s at the time. "The last thing I recovered was the use of my left hand."
She questioned why her life had been spared. That's when she started to have a recurring dream that she was a painter. "I heard about the College for Creative Studies," she said. "One day, I just went over there and told them, 'I'm supposed to be in this college.'"
She was rejected four times before she finally got in. She arrived underprepared but eventually graduated due largely to the mentorship of renowned Detroit artist Gilda Snowden. She even earned a graduate degree in fine arts from Wayne State University.
In 1998, Rainey's life took another unexpected turn. Although she had never taught school before, she was hired to develop an arts program at Detroit's Loyola High School, a Catholic academy for at-risk boys.
"When I walked in there and saw all those boys of color, I took the job because I knew that art could change their lives," says Rainey. For nine years, she introduced the boys to impressionism, abstract art and collage. They learned about Picasso, Monet, Lawrence and da Vinci.
"But after teaching them about the icons of art, I began to wonder if they'd ever experience the culture that the art lives in," says Rainey. That's when she decided to take them to find the Mona Lisa.
The film Finding Mona Lisa: 313 documents Rainey's remarkable journey with her Loyola students: Paris in 2007, Barcelona in 2008, Japan in 2009, Egypt in 2010, Costa Rica in 2011 and China this year.
When watching the engaging documentary (you're immediately charmed by the fun-loving boys' over-sized personalities), one thing stands out. The trips are not about art; they're about a wider world view.
Montell Clay, 25, was with the first group that traveled to Paris. The former foster child found the Mona Lisa to be surprisingly smaller than he expected-but his own horizons a lot bigger. Like finding the courage to take a plane ride. Learning to trust complete strangers. Realizing Detroit is a small place in a big world.
"I went over there with a typical inner city mindset," says the Wayne State University finance student. "I was just living day to day, accepting the possibility that you won't be alive tomorrow. I came back thinking about what I was going to do with my life and how I was going to give the experience meaning."
Jordan Stafford, 23, traveled with Rainey to Barcelona in 2008. He just graduated from Saginaw Valley State University in May with a major in theater and a minor in art. He's already illustrated three children's books and is saving to move to Chicago to begin an improv career.
"My favorite part was visiting the Salvador Dalí museum," says Safford, who had never heard of the surrealist Spanish painter before the trip. "A lot of his stuff is dream based. Normally you draw what you see in reality. But a lot of times now, I will drift and draw my thoughts. It's abstract. That trip opened me to a different style."
Both young men feel the trip taught them to expect more from themselves, their communities and the world. "I have a passport," says Clay. "Think about that."
Actually he has two: A passport to become a global citizen, and a passport to his own imagination.
See a trailer of Finding Mona Lisa: 313 on YouTube. To support Rainey's international field trips, email email@example.com. To support a screening at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and DOC NYC, go to gofundme.com/findingmomaisa313.