Poetry comes from the heart, and whether that heart is imprisoned by the mind or cold steely bars, what’s scribbled down on paper can make life-changing differences.
That’s the message 19 young Richmond poets spoke about at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts Sunday afternoon. The nearly packed house saw RAW Talent students perform original work addressing social justice issues relating to the prison industrial complex. RAW Talent is a creative arts curriculum at the Making Waves Education Program, which serves nearly 1,000 students from 27 public elementary schools in Richmond and San Francisco. It started out as an after-school tutoring and teaching program, but now has evolved into a comprehensive, year-round educational support program.
The performance “From the Pen to the Page: This Is My Redemption” takes place inside the slammer. Inmates sit and stand behind bars wearing orange uniforms with ID numbers emblazoned across their chests. Each scene revolves around a poem. Two prison guards walk back and forth between three prison cells, stopping to listen or harass each inmate as they recite their poem.
Not all poems are about physical imprisonment. Some are about imprisonment of the mind. 16-year-old Areyanna Malbrough wrote about anorexia, while Brenda Quintanilla addressed family structure and immigration policy.
RAW Talent founder and coordinator Molly Raynor said the production reflects Richmond because of the city’s school-to-prison-pipeline reality. And although the city has great teachers making a difference, a lot of what she’s seen is just policing, she said. “If people from the outside stereotype Richmond’s students, they assume they’re going to end up in jail instead of in college,” Raynor said. “That’s the track their on. The whole point of Making Waves is getting them on a different track towards college.”
Prisons are very personal for Raynor’s students and staff. Almost every person in RAW Talent has a loved one or more than one loved one in jail, she said.
No one drove that point home better than Tamisha Walker. The 30-year-old keynote speaker from Richmond addressed the audience prior to the show. Her revelations were direct. “I was 14 when I received my first gun and carried a concealed weapon until I was 15,” Walker said. “My first son was born when I was 16 and I’d been arrested 22 times before my 18th birthday.”
Walker is now a staff member of the Safe Return Project, where she conducts research, community organizes, and advocates for new community reintegration policies for the formerly incarcerated. The project is in collaboration with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO) and Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety.
Walker said journaling and rapping were her only salvation during her teenage years, but when her 18-year-old-brother was murdered in 2005, she could no longer write. It wasn’t until she sat in a West County prison on an attempted murder charge that she regained the courage to heal herself. Putting her feelings down on paper hurt, she said, but she could no longer deny the healing power of poetry. “I love what these young people do,” Walker said about the young group of poets. “When I think of ‘raw’ I think of something natural and pure. And I think that we all have raw talent inside of us.”
RAW Talent’s first member Donté Clark, 22, said he doesn’t write poetry as often as he should, but when he prays about it, magic comes. “There’s a lot of stuff as a black man I go through, and a lot of black men go through,” Clark said. “Today I’m telling the story of why I do what I do. Whether it be right or wrong, I’m trying to figure myself out and my position in the world.”
Figuring stuff out brought a smile to the face of 16-year-old RAW Talent performer Trevon Newmann. “I usually write with symbolism, but this is the first time it came from my heart,” Newmann said. His poem is about the protection and love his mother gave him, while all his male relatives are set adrift on a river of metal and steel. “These poems came from all our hearts,” he continued. “I guess all our hearts are connected because we have similar backgrounds. I didn’t know how connected we were.”
Stage manager and artistic director Rooben Morgan said he’s had a lot of fun working with his students this past semester, but seeing them come into their own and grow has been the most rewarding. “They didn’t know how challenging it was going to be, but they rose to it and they grew along with it,” he said.
Audience member Tamera Gordon said her daughter, Ciera Gordon, almost made her cry when she stood behind the microphone and looked into the crowd. “Ciera’s had family members on both sides of the bars, so it’s hard,” Gordon said. “It’s good RAW Talent is here and they’re able to express the things they’re going through in a safe environment. I know I’ve kept her out of things but I also know there are family members who haven’t had that support system.”