Intergenerational incubator and creative writing program Twelve Literary Arts seeks to to inspire young people to participate in democracy

Hey yall, Im Tai, 15-year-old Tai-Charle Walker says into the single microphone. Hi Tai! shouts back the audience for tonights spoken-word open mic event. What am I made of? Tai begins, and then, to cheers, she lights whatever trepidation she has on fire: You asked a simple question, but get many different complex answers. I myself am made up of pain.

Pain from the historical trauma of slavery, the crooked cops nightstick, violence on her street. I am the moon everybody wants to get close but once they actually do they have no clue what to do You ask me what I be? Between you and me, youll never know what Ill be.

Over the course of nearly two hours, nearly all of the roughly 25 attendees, almost entirely people of color aged 15 to 21, take a turn or two at the mic. Poems crackle with fury and wonder, sparking cheers and several hmms of deep recognition as they decry racial injustice, thwarted dreams or just straight up teenage anxiety.

The session is an after-school fellowship for high school students organized by Twelve Literary Arts, an intergenerational incubator and creative writing program in the greater Cleveland area.

Tai-Charlie
Tai-Charlie Wallar performs at the open mic before her peers. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Twelve Literary Arts and its umbrella of programs is the brainchild of Daniel Gray-Kontar, an arts education activist, former national poetry slam champion and rapper seeking to provide opportunities, connection and mentorship for young writers. The organization is one of Clevelands City Champions, people or groups nominated by readers of the Guardian and the Plain Dealer, Ohios largest newspaper, for their resilience and commitment to community investment.

Q&A

What is the City Champions series about?

Many cities across the US face significant challenges places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh andCleveland are among them. And much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades.

But this week in the first installment of our City Champions series, we want to highlight the remarkable people and groups working on inspiring projects that show the resilience of those wanting to improve the lives of people in one of those cities: Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland has many challenges – inequality, structural racism, infant mortality, shamefully untreated lead poisoning – but it also has a network of people creating innovative projects that are addressing these challenges with significant success.

Collaborating with the local newspaper – The Plain Dealer – and the local PBS and NPR stations, run by ideastream, we canvassed residents for their suggestions for who to recognize and received hundreds of replies.

We then created an advisory panel of mostly local public figures who helped select the final 25 champions, whose stories we will be telling this week.

As part of this project we have also worked with the art collective For Freedoms to create a public art expression for this project. Working with For Freedoms and local artists, we commissioned artwork for six billboards that help tell the stories of the city and the challenges the champions are addressing.

John Mulholland, editor in chief, Guardian US

Twelve Literary Arts is ambitious in scope, with outreach and programs for potential poets ranging from self-taught adults to high-school English students in partner public schools. It honors the intergenerational necessity of what we do, said Gray-Kontar.

You cannot compartmentalize youth and adult development, he said, because somebody has to teach the youth, and there has to be a particular emphasis and growth around how you teach young people.

Thus, at one end, Twelve hosts a fellowship for seven to 10 adults in north-east Ohio to receive a funded once-a-week workshop and mentorship. On the other end, instructors with the organization work within select English classes in local public schools to introduce the concepts of poetry and creative expression in a safe, youth-directed space.

Daniel
Daniel Gray-Kontar, founder and director of Twelve Literary Arts. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Established as a nonprofit in 2016, Twelves roots go back farther, to Gray-Kontars time as the chair of the Literary Arts Department at the Cleveland School of the Arts; many of the programs first participants and instructors-in-training were his former students, who now contribute to the heart of the program: the after-school fellowship.

One of those former students is Raja Belle-Freeman, who initially met Gray-Kontar as a sophomore in high school at a free library poetry workshop. Now a junior at Cleveland State University, Belle-Freeman represents what Gray-Kontar calls the essence of Twelve Literary Arts, having risen from fellow to intern to support instructor to one of the after-school workshops leaders.

At the open mic, Belle-Freeman approaches lightly, but her words cut deep. When my mother I mean Santa Claus bought me that big red hat, it wasnt long before I wore it everywhere, every day, she recites. You always knew I was coming. You always knew exactly who I was. It was beautiful. That was an interesting year. Tamir Rice was killed that year.

Its a reference to the 12-year-old black boy shot by police in Cleveland in 2014 for wielding an airsoft gun. His death brought intense national attention to the citys police department, which soon after was accused by the Department of Justice of a wide range of civil rights violations.

When no one at school wanted to say his name it was like I could feel him dying twice, Belle-Freeman continues. When everyone at school said black boy instead, I could feel myself dying slowly.

Dymond
Dymond Henry (16), performs at the open mic. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Cleveland, like many mid- to large size cities in America, has its struggles with violence, racial segregation and institutional decay. The Lake Erie port citys economic and cultural prime, so the narrative goes, was in the past century, when prosperity undergirded the founding of cultural institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the internationally renowned Cleveland Orchestra.

But the city also has a tradition of homegrown infrastructure of grassroots arts groups writing circles, public libraries with free programs, and independent bookstores. Twelve Literary Arts adds to that network a hub specifically for writers of color, fostering a new generation of not just artists but arts administrators, teachers and civic leaders.

Part of that work is rethinking what a classroom space can represent for students often mired in underfunded schools or restricted by the traditional white male literary canon.

We believe that everybody in this space is an expert in their own experiences, Gray-Kontar said. And because theyre experts in their own experience, what that means is that they bring a natural genius into the classroom that is to be respected.

Its less teacher-student than every person as a teacher of their own experience: Part of what we have to teach our teachers is how to unlearn the idea that you are the sole expert in the space.

Twelve
Twelve Literary Arts teaching artists Demetria McCulloh, 23 (speaking), and Isis Duncan, 19, at the open mic event. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Facilitators provide the space and framework (and also, for the fellowship, food and rides), and then just get out of the way, said Gray-Kontar. Each fellowship session begins with a ritual called community candle, essentially a guided meditation, grounded in the programs core of mindfulness arrive and drop whatever it is you carried in the door with you. Put your phone down. Begin again.

The after-school fellowship meets twice a week from October until May. The majority of the time, the program offers lessons on a certain technique, literary device, writing style or particular author, followed by a free-writing period to manifest said lesson, or whatever else comes to mind. Then, crucially, there are much-loves affirmations such as Youre rocking that orange sweater today, its giving me life or I really felt what you wrote today about your brother, thank you.

Once a month the fellowship hosts the open mic, where students can share their work.

The subject material can certainly be dark some of the evenings poems referenced gun violence or depression but members of Twelve said the program helps to expand ones sense of creative expression beyond an open wound; the darkest narrative is not the only or most important one.

I think Twelve really works against the fetishization of sadness, said Kai Gyorki, 16, who as an intern with Twelve attended a national poetry slam in Las Vegas. Its like, you may have powerlessness and obviously, you can talk about it here so openly. But you always end up feeling empowered.

Kai
Kai Gyorgi, 16, at the open mic event. Photograph: Shooting Without Bullets/The Guardian

Kai added: I know for many people, Twelve has led to jobs to being able to go to college, to scholarships.

Many involved with the group speak about the importance of voice the honing of it, the recognition of it, the channeling of it into stories long messaged as unimportant or secondary or outside tradition .

The biggest challenge for facilitators, according Stephanie Ginese, Twelves director of special programs and a former assistant teaching instructor, is overcoming decades of marginalization and convincing students that their story does matter. They may think no one wants to hear about their grandmas rice and beans or what goes on in their neighborhood, in part because theyre not getting this education at school.

Gray-Kontars mission, then, for Twelve Literary Arts is the recentering of voice, an effort of listening and validation that goes beyond ones aptitude for literature or poetry.

At the end of the day, what we are endeavoring to do is to inspire young people to participate in our democracy, he said.

They may or may not become Pulitzer prize-winning writers. But they will learn that their voice matters and when that their voice matters, they then understand that because you can use your voice, you are participating in this democracy.

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Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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