Spoken word is a powerful tool, as the youth of the DC area are discovering thanks to Split This Rock, a nonprofit organization devoted to taking an active role in society through spoken word poetry and giving voices to the voiceless youth. The organization is committed to fostering the voices of the next generation of poets, promoting literacy and self-confidence, and bringing together a network of poets and activists who can use their words to fuel change and call attention to social justice issues.
Their DC Youth Slam Team is a year-long program in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) that uses poetry to empower teens ages 13 to 18, teaching them to speak up about social justice issues going on in their hometowns and all over the world. Trips to regional and national poetry festivals provide opportunities and platforms for the youth to develop their writing and public speaking skills, and through mentoring, workshops and the learning that happens through conversation with others, the youth gains much, from self-confidence to a second family.
“It’s much more than just poetry. We’ve actually created a home away from home…a second family that they really needed,” said Jonathan Tucker, Youth Programs Coordinator and coach for the Youth Slam Team.
In addition to the year-long program itself, free creative writing, poetry, and spoken word performance workshops are offered every Tuesday at the Martin Luther King Library in DC from 4:30 to 6:30 pm. The program and workshops consist of more than just writing poetry and performing it.
“We teach them about conflicts going on all across the world; different examples of racism and sexism and militarism…all across the world and we connect them with poets working in those places, fighting against systems of oppression…those connections give them a worldview that nothing is out of reach for them,” Tucker said.
Other than the skills that they earn and the friends that they make, at the end of the year each student has their own complete book of poetry, which are sold for fundraising for the program, with each individual student keeping half of the profits.
The young poets are also encouraged by their budding talent and growing knowledge of the world to raise their voices about issues that aren’t well covered by the media.
“We demand that poets speak up and take center stage…get[ting] more involved in public life…advocating for the issues that they care about. Poets are really important storytellers, there are few who have the freedom of speech that we do,” Tucker said.
Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) is a youth poetry slam, co-sponsored by Split this Rock and poetryN.OW, which aims to bring teens together across all different backgrounds to celebrate written and spoken word poetry. The competition emphasizes community, teamwork, and the power of the spoken word with its teams working the entire year critiquing and rewriting their pieces during weekly after-school meetings. Over 200 to 300 people attend and 25 local high schools participate, with each after-school poetry club performing their own individual and group poems in several rounds. The goal of LTAB is not only to promote a culture of literacy and self-confidence, but also to bring students together across lines that divide to listen to, learn from, and bond with one another. Spoken word poetry is used to promote tolerance and understanding, although the competition also has film screenings, workshops, and plenty more.
The new reigning champions for the 2014 competition, as of May 31, are part of the slam team from Caesar Chavez Public Charter School.
Split This Rock fosters a fondness for poetry in the younger generations and creates a network of socially engaged young people who will grow up to be the leaders of our country. The program seeks to make poetry relevant amidst the obstacles and struggles of daily life and to highlight the injustices that exist in the world, splitting them open for all to witness and do something about.
What YOU Can Do
For those who want to join or are interested in signing up their children, head out to the workshops at the library on Tuesdays, attend open-mic nights at Busboys and Poets in DC, or shoot Tucker an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a try-out process that starts out in August and finishes around January.
For others who want to get involved, donors and contributors of any amount are welcomed and much appreciated. You can also sign up to receive a poem a week via email at the program’s website splitthisrock.org.