From processing a brother's death to reflecting on life as a woman of color, students in the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Educate Youth's after-school program captured the tumult of 2020 in a new booklet of poetry called "Spiritual Warriors."
The booklet is being given to Educate donors and sold as a small fundraiser. The public will have a chance to hear the youth and two adult poets reading their poems during a virtual fundraiser May 6, with details to be announced on the Educate Youth Facebook page.
"It's the first [collection of poetry] but I'm sure there will be more," says Gail Wolkoff, executive director of Educate Youth.Educate Youth executive director Gail Wolkoff.
The poems were written over the summer of 2020, partly in response to prompts by historian and poet Richard Thomas. Thomas has been meeting with youth in the program, in person and via Zoom, for nearly two years.
Rhonda Palmer, a volunteer and board co-chair at Educate Youth, introduced Thomas to the organization. A couple of years ago, Palmer helped Thomas put together a volume of his poetry and asked Thomas if he'd like to talk about "life, poetry, history, and growing up in Detroit" with the Educate Youth participants.
Thomas was a professor, teaching history and courses on race relations for more than 40 years at Michigan State University, but also had a long-time interest in poetry that stemmed from the civil rights and Black Power movements of the '60s.
"History has always been a way to understand contemporary events, but poetry is kind of a part of my spiritual core," Thomas says. Historian and poet Richard Thomas.
Thomas says he was less interested in teaching traditional poetry structure and more interested in getting the young participants to be "true to their feelings."
"I wanted to give them ways they could express their feelings and concerns in poetry," Thomas says. "I was concerned that Black youth are going through so much, and I wanted to encourage them to find a channel for that."
Thomas says he was "honored" that several participants chose to write poems in his honor.
"I was able to walk alongside them as they were experiencing some of the trauma going on in their lives," he says. "It was an honor to be accepted into their circle. I'm old enough to be their granddad."
Thomas talked with the youth about contemporary events but also about history, including civil rights leader John Lewis, who died during the summer of 2020. Several poems in the booklet reflect on, or are dedicated to, Lewis.
"I wanted to make sure they stayed connected with civil rights icons, and the best way to do that is to write about history," Thomas says. "I was very impressed that they were able to internalize their feelings about him and express it."
Howard Williams, 24, was an employee with Educate Youth until a few months ago. Some of his poems are included in the booklet.
"I was never much of a poet before, but when I started doing it on a regular basis, I learned to write better poetry," he says. "I like how it gets you to think deeper on things. In my poems, there's some humor with some deep thinking."
Tenth-grader Morgan Horgrow had six of her poems published in the booklet, including one called "The Life of a Brown Woman."
"At the time I wrote that, we were talking about protests and inequality, and Richard gave us an assignment to talk about how we feel as brown and Black people," she says.
In the poem, she wishes that people of color could escape brutality and come back to life after being killed. The idea of adding phrases about superpowers to the poem came to her after watching "The Vampire Diaries" on Netflix.
"[Characters on the show are] immortal. I was thinking, 'Why can't Black people be like them?'" she says.
Ninth-grader Breanna Mayers' poem "Inspiration" is also collected in the poetry volume, ending with the lines, "I love my clubhouse gang, broski, girlie, and fam / But, does anyone want any ham?"
"I was just collaging my thoughts, what came to mind, and then added a twist," she says with a laugh. L to R Educate Youth students Morgan Hargrove, Breanna Mayers, Lehana Mayers, and Reese Weatherspoon with copies of the "Spiritual Warriors" poetry book.
Her sister, 10th-grader Lehanna Mayers, kept a log of her thoughts in poems labeled by date. Her poem "7/29/2020" starts with the lines, "I know life can get hard, but keep pushing / You might not feel motivated right now, but keep reaching for the stars."
"I was talking to myself in that poem, saying something I wish somebody would have told me," she says.
Reese Weatherspoon, 16, wrote several poems about his brother's death and the emotional aftermath of that event, including one poem titled simply "7/7/2020." The poem includes the lines, "Today makes it a month since my brother passed / Sometimes I will just laugh / Not that it is funny, but I just remember the old times / People think I'm going crazy but that's just how I cope."
"I wrote that a month after my brother passed, and it was an up and down day," Weatherspoon says.
He says his experiences with Thomas and the Educate Youth clubhouse helped him see that poetry was a way he could express himself.
Ypsilanti resident and Educate Youth board member Desirae Simmons wrote the introduction to the volume. She says reading through the young people's works helped her to "better understand this moment and why it is moments just like these when poetry is needed to help us better see what is really important."
"I got to read the poems before the book went to press, and I was feeling so much of everything they were expressing about what was happening, all these different emotions," Simmons says. "It wasn't all sad, but it was all real."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.