This year ninth graders of The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) in Jamaica, Queens began exploring Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In this class with Teaching Artist & Writer Katie Rainey, the students have experimented with voice and language, specifically when it comes to making outspoken, socially conscious artwork. Previously, this class has explored Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” written collaborative community poems on society’s expectations of young women of color, studied different genres with guest artists, and filled numerous journal pages with their thoughts, feelings, and experiments in writing.
Having spent months developing a strong, supportive, and inquistive community, the class was prepared to take their learning to the next level and, thanks to several community partners, that next step turned into something truly unique and so much more impactful than anyone could have anticipated.
Graywolf Press generously donated the copies of Citizen to our two classes of 9th graders, which made it possible for the classes to have rich and powerful conversations about race, microaggressions, and what it means to be a citizen living in this country. Both classes (of roughly thirty students each) are made up of a diverse body of students, many of whom who could relate to the experiences Claudia Rankine paints in her book-length poem. After creating community agreements for the conversations they would have around these intense subjects, the students, Katie, TAP trainees, and TYWLS English Teacher, Dorothy Jones, dove into the heart of the work and explored it as a community.
On March 14th, the 65 students, Katie, TAP trainees, and TYWLS chaperones left the school grounds and walked to St. John’s University to visit the Dr. Geoffrey M. T. Yeh Art Gallery, in order to view the exhibit Citizen, which featured twenty artists whose work was inspired by the poetry in Claudia Rankine’s in her book. Director of the gallery, Yulia Tikhonova, provided a captivating tour of the work, giving the students context behind some of the breathtaking works like Nona Faustine’s “White Shoes” series, which confronts the shameful 200-year period when New York was the slave-trading capital of the United States, and, in doing so, insists the viewer confront residual prejudices and effects of that history that still persist today.
The students were fortunate enough to also hear from Professor Judith Ryder about The Clothesline Project also on display at the museum. The Clothesline Project provides evidence that incest, domestic voilence, and sexual violence exists in our communities. It is a visual reminder of statistics that we often ignore. It gives a voice to those who have been forcibly silenced. After hearing about this work, the students were invited to make their own contribution to the project by creating t-shirts with messages to help bring awareness to domestic violence and the prejudices that persist in our society inspired by the day’s visit.
It was an incredible field trip and we are so grateful to our partners at St. John’s for making that happen.
However, the Citizen unit didn’t end there. These 9th graders were so inspired by Rankine’s book and the work of these contemporary artists that they set about creating their own socially conscious art. They used the poetry and creative writing skills they’d been building all year to raise their voices against the injustices they see in the world.
The students created an anthology of these incredible pieces titled Citizen Uncensored that showcases their poetry, visual artworks, photographs, and community poems. On June 6th, they celebrated the end of their CWP residency and all of their hard work at a culminating event under the same title: “Citizen Uncensored”.
At the event, the 9th graders mentored their 7th grade sisters in collaborative and individual art-making, community work, and what it means to be a citizen in this country right now. Postcards were also shared from the Con Edison Civics Project, a pilot collaboration with Urban Word NYC, sponsored by Con Edison that resulted in two student-generated murals. The day was full of laughs, food, fun, reflection, and truly inspirational art.
Finally, on June 7th, Katie, Dorothy, and three of their students – Naysa, Kayla, and Sairis – presented at the National Book Foundation’s Why Reading Matters Conference in a session titled, “Connecting the Classroom: Using Citizen to Engage Youth Advocacy & Creativity”. In this session, they led participants in the narrative arc of their Citizen curriculum, highlighting ways in which communities can collaborate to teach students and expand their world views, creating a stronger, more socially conscious generation of citizens who aren’t afraid to question systems and speak out against injustice.
It has been a huge year for community, especially with our TYWLS partnerhsip, and it has been so impactful on our students! This invaluable unit wouldn’t have been possible without the support and contributions from all of our community.
Community-Word Project would like to thank all of our partners who made this thoughtful and empowering unit possible: Graywolf Press; St. John’s University, the Academic Service Learning Department, the Dr. Geoffrey M. T. Yeh Art Gallery, and specifically Yulia Tikhonova, Judith Ryder, Anna Zak, and Lynn Stravino; The Young Women’s Leadership School of Jamaica, Queens, specifically Dorothy Jones, Mala Panday, and Jennifer Pineda; Con Edison and Urban Word NYC; and all of the CWP staff and TAP trainees that made this work so impactful.