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Richmond youth share stories of struggle and hope

on November 30, 2011

When Jamaya Walker’s father was murdered last March she cried so fiercely she became physically ill.

She still has the bullet that took his life, but now, instead of weeping, she writes.

“When you’re a daddy’s girl and your dad gets murdered, you don’t know what to do,” 14-year-old Walker said. “I just wrote all my emotions. I had to.”

Walker will join other Richmond youth this Sunday at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts as RAW Talent presents The Poetry of Poverty: Stories Untold, a candid-yet-hopeful documentary of personal struggles shared through theater, spoken word, and dance.

Dayliss Boone, 15, writes about not wanting to go to school as a little girl because she had to wear the same outfit day after day. George Mitchell, 21, shares what it feels like when the soles of his shoes begin to wear away from having to walk everywhere he goes. And Walker, a hustler’s daughter, reflects with maturity beyond her teenage years how the misguided paper chase killed her dad.

“I just remember crying to daddy everyday telling him he was gonna die in this game,” Walker reads during a dress rehearsal, a slight quiver in her voice.

RAW – Richmond Artists Write – Talent formed five years ago when Molly Raynor, 27, began teaching reading and writing at Making Waves, a tutoring and mentoring after-school program that works to offer low-income young people academic opportunities.  Raynor, once a shy child, began practicing spoken word herself as a teenager through Youth Speaks, an organization that develops and promotes spoken word programs across the country. She immediately set out to bring the art form to Richmond.

“Poetry shaped me completely,” she said.

Raynor’s first apprentice was a 17-year-old young man on the verge of not graduating high school named Donte Clark. Clark, who comes from a family where the men usually go on to become felons rather than scribes, didn’t consider himself a poet.

But he did write song lyrics.

“Poetry is a cappella,” Clark said. “It gave me a chance to think deep about who I was and my surroundings. I feel like anyone who speaks is a poet, if you’re telling the truth about your experience.”

The now 21-year-old also began to recognize that rap stems from poetry. Clark spent that entire first year working one-on-one with Raynor, learning everything he could about composing as well as teaching, and the next year came back as an intern when she began to expand the program.

The second year, with about 10 students, Raynor and Clark began holding open mike sessions in the Making Waves kitchen, taking field trips and publishing Bad Words, a compilation of student poems.

Neither one anticipated how much the program would grow from there.

Bad Words went from a loosely spiraled magazine to a bound and published book with, hopefully, an ISBN number this year. Students built their own makeshift recording studio where they produce audio recordings to accompany the written collections. And last year at the annual Poetry Slam, a competition hosted by Youth Speaks, Richmond dominated. With 600 participants from around the Bay Area competing, three of the 14 finalists were products of RAW Talent.

“It grew exponentially,” Raynor said.

The director of Making Waves also began to take notice and established an official department, which Raynor now facilitates full time with the help of three interns. In addition to spoken word, RAW Talent offers theater, music production and dance.

The young adult interns, who go through intensive training, have been key to the program’s success.

When Clark began working with Raynor he had little interest in academic pursuits, but he did have credibility among the students. Now he is enrolled at Laney College in Oakland and perpetually educating himself so he can pass that knowledge on to the Wave Makers he teaches.

“He’s one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever seen,” Raynor said. “He is the backbone of RAW Talent. He’s coming from where they come from.”

Making Waves starts working with kids, who must be at or below the poverty line to enroll, in fifth grade and mentors them through high school. Before the economic collapse the organization paid full college tuition for students who graduate from the program. Now, it contributes $10,000 per student per year.

Despite the fact that all the young people in RAW Talent are by definition in poverty, when Clark asked in a workshop at the beginning of the semester who in the group had been touched by poverty, less than half rose their hands.

The ultimate goals of spoken word poetry are to expose social injustices and to create a positive outlet for expression. But as Clark pointed out that day,  “If you’re not willing to admit you’re struggling, you can’t get to the root of the problem.”

In previous shows, RAW Talent, which does a winter and spring performance, has explored controversial current events, such as the Oscar Grant killing and the Richmond High rape.

And when students, parents and teachers met to discuss possible themes for this weekend’s show, suggestions once again oscillated between gun violence, Richmond’s inadequate education system, and sexual exploitation. Then one young woman observed that each of these ailments could be traced back to a root problem: poverty.

In workshops, which are held twice a week, Clark and Raynor first had the students write about their own experiences with poverty. But slowly they pushed them to move outside themselves and to share the untold stories.

“We are trying to tell the stories we walk through and past everyday,” Clark said.

One wrote a poem from the perspective of a boy whose mother has HIV but can’t get health insurance. Another wrote an abstract tale as if she was poverty itself – with slavery as her mother, capitalism her father and justice her sister.

But some, like Walker and Boone, are still searching for the poetry in their own painful memories and aren’t ready to move outward just yet.

Many young women in the program of about 30 students have been touched personally by sexual violence. And every one has felt the ripple effects of gun violence. RAW Talent has become a place for them to express feelings, and, ultimately, advocate for change.

As the students say, “RAW Talent isn’t just a program, it’s a family. It’s therapy.”

“My intentions have always been twofold,” Raynor said. “I want my students to become stronger writers and performers, but my main goal is for them to have a place to process what they’re going through.”

| The Poetry of Poverty: Stories Untold

Jamaya Walker


George Mitchell


Dayliss Boone


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