Poetry, Youth Violence, and the Fight for Public Education in Chicago

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It seems that, for Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education, funding for public education is more about keeping up appearances than investing into the future of its citizens.

While many neighborhood school budgets are being cut by close to $1 million over the course of three years, principals and teachers have been faced with another unique problem. This year, the Board of Education, while voting to defund the majority of some hundred public schools, created a new policy mandating that schools teach arts & physical education a combined three and a half hours per week.

As school principals scratch their heads trying to figure out how they’re supposed to add minutes to the school day while money for staffs and programs remains slashed, Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says administrations merely need to be better leaders.

“What it takes is real leadership to say this is what I have based on the number of children, and how do I more creatively figure out how to get the kids what they need,” Byrd-Bennett told the Chicago Tribune. “I may not have a designated art teacher, but am I able to integrate art (into another subject)? I don’t have a gymnasium, but how do I do physical education?”

Rahm Emanuel has also pledged $60 million in tax money to open Obama College Prep in the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood, even while residents complain about how they will have nowhere to park their cars.

Meanwhile, in another meeting behind closed doors, the Emanuel Administration discussed another troubling reality for young people in Chicago: gun violence.

This is an issue that cannot wait for a creative solution. There have been at least 137 deaths as a result of gun violence since the beginning of 2014, a rate that can only climb as schools release for the summer.

Although city officials can name ways to curb our city’s murder rate—namely through giving young people job opportunities to deter gang recruitment—no one is putting down the dough to achieve a peaceful reality.

Meanwhile, tax dollars that should be going into some of the most vulnerable communities get pumped into endless development projects in already booming areas.

It seems that Rahm Emanuel is displaying an apathy that is literally killing off futures in Chicago.

But let’s flip the script on a culture of violent negligence for young people. While politicians sit on their hands, many artists have taken matters into their own hands to find a solution. They have been using Chicago’s vibrant cultural heritage to intervene on the disinvestment of our city’s youth: spoken word poetry.

But how can the arts effectively resolve an issue like our climbing murder rate?

One such organization may have the model solution. The South Side’s L.Y.R.I.C. is shifting the culture of violence for young people. Built on a mentorship model, L.Y.R.I.C. is run out of pocket by two poets, Kendria “K’Love” Harris and Teh’ Ray “Phenom” Hale.

L.Y.R.I.C. uses spoken word poetry to teach communication, anger management, leadership, and activism, using art and self-expression to provide alternative solutions to youth violence in Chicago. In addition to a weekly open mic, classroom residencies, and cross-country tours with students, the collective hosts an annual week-long festival called L.Y.R.I.C. Fest, which takes place during one of the historically most dangerous weeks for Chicago’s under 18 population.

L.Y.R.I.C. Fest takes place the week school gets out for the summer, a time when violence peaks for young people. The festival provides an alternative safe space where attendees will be free of gun violence. According to South Side poet Bryant Cross, “L.Y.R.I.C. Fest is the only community arts program in the city that will specifically try to lower the violence during that crucial week. Every child in L.Y.R.I.C.’s doors is a child that will not be a victim to gun violence.”

Through poetry, L.Y.R.I.C. will intervene on and possibly save the lives of every young person who participates. Not only will participation guarentee young people are off the streets, it will also forge a strong, supportive arts community by connecting with other youth arts organizations such as Young Chicago Authors and Kuumba Lynx.

By the way, did I mention they’re run out of pocket? Please click here to donate towards their modest costs.

This is one reason why poetry is such an affective tool of youth intervention and empowerment, even in comparison to other youth arts programs. For one, poetry—particularly spoken word—is less expensive to teach than other arts. The only necessary equipment is a pen and a piece of paper.

Secondly, poetry provides expressive freedom with less restriction than other written or visual forms. When it comes to language, anything goes with poetry. Meaning and story are fluid, and musical language and innovation are highly valued.

Spoken forms in particular make more room for rule-breaking, since the medium is the creator himself, rather than a page. They also are more likely to appeal to young people because of hip-hop’s roots in oral tradition; spoken word poetry and hip-hop culture borrow from each other heavily, particularly in Chicago.

Finally, poetry provides an outlet for young people to respond to their environments and potential impact their surroundings. Earlier this year, TEAM Engelwood’s slam poetry team went viral with their poem about “Wreck-It Rahm.” Students from one of Chicago’s reputedly more violent communities made headlines while exposing the faulty logic of Rahm Emanuel’s political greed.

Through this collaborative choreographed group piece, students categorically expose the realities of communities Rahm Emanuel has disenfranches by stealing from the poor to give to the rich, shifting tax money away from people of color in favor of improving tourism.

When I was in high school, I experienced the benefits of performance poetry first-hand. Finding an outlet in poetry was crucial in surviving battles with an abusive home life, issues of self-esteem and mental health, peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol, and sexuality. It also kept me enrolled when I intended to drop-out and enter the workforce without a high school diploma.

Now that I have been teaching students poetry in classroom settings for nearly half a decade, I’ve encountered these universal problems again and again—it is crucial to increase self-understanding through writing, especially in Chicago. Studies have shown that performance poetry can be integral in processing and healing from trauma or coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Students in Chicago have added urgency when their environments have been consistently disinvested, creating more violence and less economic opportunity for each individual.

Chicago Public Schools have been faced with a multi-faceted and complex problem. While funding has decreased dramatically—particularly for neighborhood schools—arts programming must be increased through mandate. In addition to political turmoil, youth in the city face violence as a daily reality. By the end of the year, the body count will undoubtedly climb well into the hundreds. Many will be lost before they even reach their 18th birthday.

But we know spoken word programs like L.Y.R.I.C. are providing tangible benefits that resolve all of these issues, while improving student health. The citywide youth poetry festival, Louder Than A Bomb, has tripled in size since 2008, from approximately 40 participating high schools to 120, demonstrating that many schools have already caught on to these benefits.

Yesterday, I published an interview with mentor Peter Kahn, the founder of one of Chicago’s first high school programs explicitly devoted to spoken word.

“Students need to know their stories, their voices matter to adults and to each other. It is most imperative in times like these,” he said in response to the role of poetry in these tumultuous times. “[T]he craft of poetry writing and performance develops a variety of ‘transferable skills,’ from written literacy, oral literacy, analytical skills and social-emotional literacy. It also builds self-confidence and academic engagement, thus building hope and academic investment.”

Peter Kahn has also started an innovative Spoken Word Pedagogy program. The program aims to train artists and educators alike to use spoken word as a tool of youth empowerment, community building, and academic improvement within Chicago Public Schools.

It would be wise for CPS administrators and politicians to begin investing more into spoken word programming. Creating a position for Spoken Word Educators at each school—even part time—would increase the health of individual students, fulfill an arts programming requirement, and potentially bolster test scores while adhering to Common Core standards.

The most appealing benefit, in my opinion, is that it would do so without silencing student voices. In fact, it would provide even more opportunity for their stories to be told. Rather than ignoring the reality of the experiences of young people (particularly the young people of color who make up the overwhelming majority of CPS students), they would become the focus of innovative arts education.

Indeed, it would be a force with which to be reckoned. Perhaps this is precisely why it hasn’t happened yet—people are afraid of what young people will say when given a chance to speak. That alone speaks to the powerful potential of their voices.

headshot2STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit.  She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013.  This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here