12/12/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Detroit Student Voices: The InsideOut Wow Factor

As Detroit turns its sad corner into bankruptcy, I take heart in turning my gaze to a wider horizon. I am pleased to announce that I have been selected to participate in the National Advisory Committee for an upcoming summit on the field of creative youth development, hosted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, in partnership with the President's Committee on the Arts & the Humanities and the National Guild for Community Arts Education. I am humbled and honored to be included among leaders, artists and educators who have been working to transform young lives through arts and culture for upwards of twenty years.

The conference will bring together "the best and the brightest" in this field to Boston in late March. Detroit will have a strong presence, since the incredible Rick Sperling, founder of Mosaic Youth Theatre, is also on the committee. I expect that the fire and passion of our work with young people will present a hopeful counterpoint to the disaster that Detroit has come to stand for.

Looking back over eighteen years of the growth and development of InsideOut Literary
Arts Project (iO), I realize that this hope has been with us all along. As our students enter their adult lives, it's gratifying when they get in touch (as they often do) to let us know the impact we have had. They speak of the transformative influence of the iO experience (thinking, imagining, sharing, speaking, performing and above all WRITING) on who they have become.

Last week iO delivered 800 copies of "Heart's Roar, and Other Poems" to the Metro Detroit Convention and Visitor's Bureau to be included in VIP packages for guests to our city. This anthology, featuring winners of the Lotus Press High School Poetry Prize, will fall into the hands of visitors from across the country and around the world. It's a fitting collaboration since the iO mission instructs us to "share students' voices with the wider world."

I'm prouder still because each time an iO student shares their voice, in person or on the page, they also share a glimpse of a city where art of every kind endures. I like to think of our students as youthful reflections of artists like Tyree Guyton, founder of the Heidelberg Project. Tyree is an especially resonant symbol lately for his bold commitment to art and to Detroit even as a serial arsonist has ravaged the Heidelberg.

Oddly, the first winner of this Lotus Press High School Poetry Prize, initiated in 2001 by Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett, was inspired by the work of Guyton.

In "Jailbreak," Quincy Vanderbilt an alumnus of the now closed Southwestern High School, used Tyree Guyton's "Caged Brain" to explore his understanding of his city. He wrote his poem in 2001, when to be a Detroiter often meant fending off the disdain of the rest of the country.


Detroit is a city
of caged brains,
of fogged eyes
that refuse to see
through a wall
where we want to go:
of singing mouths
that want to cry out
to the world about
the talents inside
our bodies,
like wild horses
trying to be broken...

Quincy's Detroit is a city of "muscled arms" and
"skilled fingers that manipulate imaginations"
but is also one whose inhabitants'

rooted legs
... refuse to uproot
so we can climb
over hot iron walls:
of hearts that pump
oxygen to those brains
so that if they get
big enough, maybe,
just maybe, we can
bust out of that cage
& grow to become
beautiful flowers

2001 Lotus Press High School Poetry Prize
First published in Southwestern High School's DIGGING UP.

I love this poem for its tensions and contradictions and for the way Quincy lets us know the struggle, the promise, the frustration and the energy of growing up in Detroit. Visit the iO website for the complete text. Guyton's sculpture is in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, thankfully not destroyed by arson, thankfully preserved. Tyree endures and so does iO.

In a conversation with iO board, staff members and volunteers last night, we discussed how to communicate this powerful impact, trying to refine (as we often do) our elevator speech. How and why does iO work so well? The world of iO is as complex and fascinating as the young minds we encounter every day, but it doesn't boil down to a neat formula.

Perhaps it helps to say what iO is not. We are not a tutoring program, although one on one adult-youth relationships are essential to our work. We do not focus on test scores, although teacher after teacher will tell of the academic improvement and classroom engagement engendered by our program. One best practice in the field of youth arts development is that young people work with "skilled practitioners" of the arts, so we pay iO's tremendously accomplished teaching artists a living wage, and contribute to the local economy. And we are not, as one Detroit leader said to me recently, "a parachute drop." We do not come and go as an organization. We have been in Detroit schools and classrooms for a long time, building rich relationships and serving thousands of students per year. So, complexity, yes...but we all agreed that the iO effect can be boiled down to one simple word: WOW.

WOW was in the house Saturday at "The Gift of Possibility," a salon styled fundraising event hosted by the Paradise Pen Company inside of The Somerset Collection in Troy, which brought in much-needed dollars as shoppers enjoyed discounts as well as the voices of iO students, sharing their poems and stories about what iO has meant to them. WOW is the response we get when folks find out the amount we accomplish (5,000 youth per year, 30 separate books per school, dozens of public performances) on the most meager of budgets.

WOW is also when the US Poet Laureate discovers how twelve-year-olds on Detroit's near east side are empowered by poetry and when their formerly skeptical principal embraces poetry as a motivating force, even for his football players. It's when iO teen poets receive standing ovations for their performances at TEDxDetroit, or the launch of a cross-city collaboration using technology, poetry and playwriting to pair teens in classrooms in Washington, D.C. and Detroit to explore what their cities, and their lives, mean to them. And we also agreed that what makes iO's "Wow" is voice: the voices of our students. Help young people discover and believe in their own voices (or, as our mission says, "think broadly, create bravely") and they can go anywhere.

And indeed they do go!