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The Path of Poet-Educator Activists

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Lyrical Circle began in 2002 as a program dreamt up and initiated by youth members of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, the comprehensive youth organization I co-founded in 1995.

That Lyrical Circle exists is a testimony to them. Two members, at the time 13 and 17 years old, Elizabeth Acevedo and Melvin White, came to us and said they needed a place to write. They were poets and needed a space that would support the development of their craft and the refining of their voices. These youth recruited their friends, friends of the mind -- to paraphrase Toni Morrison's words in Beloved -- and built their own program. Their call became Lyrical Circle, an award-winning, widely respected collective of some of the truly baddest poets in the land. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol published a collection of their work, Off the Subject, in 2006 and reissued it in 2013 -- it speaks to the transformative power of art education, and of developing voices, and the intersection of social justice and the arts.

Lyrical Circle met every Friday night in our building, from 7 to 11 p.m. While they welcomed visitors, and I was honored to join them on occasion, they were a close-knit, tightly held collective; their love for each other was evident and is binding. They received assignments on specific words or subjects for future weeks; they read their completed assignments; they shared new pieces; and they were pushed to refine their voices and develop new styles and approaches to the art form. When they read particularly hot pieces, their fellow members waved their pens in the air and nodded their heads in deference, the poet's form of a standing ovation. Reverence for truly spitting fire.

The poets of Lyrical Circle, young women and young men, are from assorted ethnic backgrounds, Black American, Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Dominican. All come from economically poor backgrounds -- the kind where similar, all-too-common realities are faced. All attended, at one time or another, educationally disadvantaged schools in New York City, schools that stifle dreams every single day. All were raised in the historic Black and Latino/a communities of New York City: Harlem, the South Bronx, Bushwick, the Lower East Side, and Washington Heights. And while many of their experiences and foundations have been similar, they have taken different paths, experienced different highs and lows.

Some of these poets were driven to write by a belief in change, a hope that they could make a difference, while others were driven by rage at what they had seen and the sense of hopelessness that pervaded them. Pain comes through many of their pieces, and the release of that pain through their poetry has been a cathartic experience that all poets know well. Some Lyrical Circle members have been homeless for nights or for months or lived on other's couches for years; some have used illegal drugs as an attempt to self-medicate; some have been incarcerated; some have been violent to others; and some have been violated. One writes of first handling a gun at the age of six. Another writes of the sexual assault she experienced at the hands of her father. They speak on it all. These are young women and men who, when only in high school, revealed the conditions that society allowed them to face, what they endured, and yet, how they stood strong and overcame. It is their spirit that resonates.

From varied backgrounds and assorted perspectives, even what they want from the art form differs. Some of these young people saw their poetry as a way to break into Hip Hop, MCs who wanted music to be a career. Others are poets who loved to perform, but were not interested in professional careers, only that their voices were heard. Finally, there are those who had no interest in performing; they came to LC shy, nervous to even read out loud what they had written privately or memorized in their heads, but it came out of them still, the written word demanding to be let out. Their poems are flows, lyricisms, and the words of wordsmiths. Some called themselves MCs and grabbed hold of the mantle of Hip Hop, emanating stage presence. Some called themselves poets and hope to fill the pages of books with their words. Some stated simply, "I just write. That is what I do."

Lyrical Circle. A group of poets of a similar mind, poets who value the word, who seek to critique society, and who are not rappers, but are Hip-Hop, walking. Rap is the music; Hip Hop is a way of life, a worldview, a way of dress, a culture, an attitude, a vibe, and a lifestyle. While Rap has been taken over in the last decade by nihilistic, materialistic, oppressive, and misogynistic voices, while modern-day minstrels are some of the most visible voices now in what once was our musical form, others have remained true to the craft. Hip-Hop as a culture has been around now for over 30 years, its form and attitude slowly evolving, its approaches changing, ebbing and flowing. What used to be an essential voice of political outcry has been commodified and sold, altered and commercialized. And yet, in the face of this, many have stood strong, their voices still revealing truth, commenting on the world, calling to action. Lyrical Circle are these types of word warriors.

All are talented voices, some of the most critical, passionate, honest, insightful voices of clarity and commentary that we have today -- not youth voices, but just voices. They are important, essential voices commenting on the world we all live in. If only our politicians and government officials, our professional so-called spokespeople, had the honesty and power of these young people.

Young people today are the most-often-discussed, least-heard-from constituency in America. Their issues, culture, complications, anger, violence, rage, and educational level are constantly debated and discussed, and where are their voices? Lyrical Circle. They are vital voices of their generation, commenting on poverty and racism, on sexism and misogyny, on war and peace, on Iraq and Sudan, on rape and loss, on love and pain, on illegitimate governments from the pages of history and ones in power now, on hypocrisy and truth. Lyrical Circle. They write about their skins, the world through their eyes, the lives they live and those they dream of. They are sharpening their swords for the many battles of ideas that they are engaged in and the many battles to come. Their words are freedom thoughts and calls to arms.

Two of the poets are now public school teachers and seven of the poets are arts educators. These poets are now graduates from New York University, the New School, George Washington University and Fordham. One is in pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts; another earned a Masters in Theater Arts Education, while another is an award winning documentary filmmaker who uses poetry throughout his medium.

Their art has led them to perform in Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Cambodia, Tanzania, Germany, Ecuador, South Africa, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Sudan, Brazil, Singapore and many other nations. They have experienced incredible performances and career highs, and have struggled with difficult times and loss; some are still struggling to find their way -- and yet, as with so many gifted artists, their journeys are not linear. They are successful and they stumble. But their guiding light remains the word. Their profound ability and gift, their craft for pulling back the façade and providing vision remains their poetry - their words.

Five of the member of LC founded Peace Poets -- a collective of artist educators. Frank Lopez. Enmanuel Candelario. Frantz Jerome. Luke Nephew. Abraham Velazquez. Their mission is to focus on human rights education: "We are young artist educators committed to teaching with a focus on our collective liberation. Our goal is to create safe spaces that allow us to deconstruct race, class and gender as a community." They have worked with survivors of war, with the families of those who have been disappeared, and with children who are recovering from trauma. The Peace Poets will be releasing their album this year. Their initial single is Water Got No Enemy. Here is the first single and example of their work -- poets, educators, activists: www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5GlbhTRlrY

The definition of a radical is arising from or going to the root. We have witnessed our youth come to an understanding of the roots of injustice and inequity -- as they seek their truth. The inclusion of art into any curriculum can provide such transformative experience. Our poets have walked far and will walk farther still -- as they seek these roots -- carrying with them the tools of their humanity, the weapons of their truth -- their lyrics, their commentary. After all, they are poets.