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Voice to Visual: Civics, Art and Poetry

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November 2018 | Cara Search, Development Assistant

Ten high schoolers from Community-Word Project (CWP) partner schools circled up in a high-ceilinged conference space of the 53rd Street New York Public Library. This was the first meeting of the youth mural artists engaged in Community-Word Project and Urban Word NYC’s partnership project, From Voice to Visual: Civics, Art & Poetry sponsored by our partner-in-education Con Edison.

From Voice to Visual: Civics, Art & Poetry seeks to identify the issues that affect NYC teens through dialogue and creative writing. Community-Word Project’s Teaching Artists and muralists Emet Sosna and Liz Olear will help the students translate powerful youth poetic voices into two mobile, canvas murals that will be presented at Urban Word NYC’s National Youth Poet Laureate Final.

Four students from The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) in Queens had arrived early at the library and been watching poetry readings on their iPhones. Once everyone else arrived, they shared the videos with the group.

“She’s so good.”

“Oh, and her accent! I just want her to keep talking.”

The voice belonged to Camryn Bruno, Urban Word’s 2019 NYC Youth Poet Laureate. On the eve of the midterm elections, Camryn read her poem, “Politics Bite,” for Urban Word’s NYC Youth Poet Laureate Commencement Performance.

CWP’s youth artists will respond to a selected line of “Politics Bite” with a collaborative mobile mural.

The second mural will be a free response to any theme of the students’ choice.

David King, CWP’s Program Director of School & Community Partnerships, was guiding the workshop. He had just initiated a free write about, “anything that interests you – anything you’ve been thinking about.”

“I don’t like such open-ended questions,” protested Kayla, one of the 10th graders from TYWLS Queens. David’s face lit up. “Yes! Sit in that discomfort.” 

Earlier in the workshop, however, discomfort was nowhere to be found. Given five minutes to respond to two prompts (“My politics…” and “Freedom looks/sounds/feels like…”), students shared glimpses of writing alternately forceful and fragile, declarative and reflective.

“Freedom is when you can’t see who’s oppressing you,” Sairis, another TYWLS Queens sophomore, began, spinning out a nuanced case for blissful ignorance as the only true freedom on Earth. Widgie, from Bronx Envision Academy (BEA), offered a razor-sharp refusal to be, “used to complete a white man’s job and recycled into history.”

With plenty to say, the students eventually settled into the more open-ended free write. Nazaughn, from Bronx High School for Writing & Communication Arts (BHSWCA), shared the image of a burning planet dotted with nations obliviously warring with each other, wondering aloud what will happen when the Earth can give no more.

Open-ended questions in the hands of opinionated, courageous young artists promise exciting mural offerings for Urban Word NYC’s National Youth Poet Laureate Final. These students will spend two more workshop sessions joining their individual voices into one collective, artistic vision that will speak to and about their generation.

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