Philly literary groups boost young poets and other writers

arts / Article

Mighty Writers students outside the group's bilingual writing center. Courtesy Mighty Writers.  

Mighty Writers, the Philly Youth Poetry Movement and the Philly Pigeon Poetry Slam are helping to keep the Philadelphia literary arts scene thriving while building a future generation of writers.

With support from Knight Foundation, the organizations provide a platform that helps individuals to flourish—whether it’s helping them determine a career path or use their artistic expression to advocate for social change.

“I’ve been coming for almost four years and have developed a sense of poetic creativity that I never had before,” says Philadelphia seventh-grader Serenity Baruzzini about the Mighty Writers program. She credits Mighty Writers for helping her to get published in the children’s publication Philadelphia Stories Jr. and for a public speaking experience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In a city that has a history of producing giants such as the late journalist Ed Bradley and poet Sonia Sanchez, a Philly transplant, Baruzzini is in the “write” place.

“Knight rewards innovation, which allows us to come up with the kind of imaginative projects that attracts kids to writing,” says Mighty Writers Executive Director Tim Whitaker who founded the program in 2009.

Mighty Writers—with its volunteer collective of 300 teachers, journalists, authors and artists—teaches and mentors 2,000 kids annually. With offices in South and West Philadelphia, the organization offers free daily after-school programs that mentor youth ages 7-17, teaching them to think and write with clarity, and provides preparation for the SAT. In March, Mighty Writers opened El Futuro, its first bilingual office serving Latino youth in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market neighborhood; it was funded in part by $75,000 in support from Knight Foundation.

Mighty Writers not only strives to produce writers but also seeks to address Philadelphia’s literacy crisis; 40 percent of students drop out of high school and half of working-age adults have basic literacy challenges.

High school sophomore Chris Precise credits most of her writing knowledge to Mighty Writers and says the program has inspired her to pursue a journalism career. 

“I have big dreams to work at The New York Times or even Time Magazine,” she says.

Mighty Writers also uses radio to draw kids to writing. It produces an Internet radio station, Mighty Radio, and last year documented the history of black radio in Philadelphia. The audio documentary, “Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio,” recently nabbed first place in the Public Radio Exchange’s Zeitfunk 2014 competition for the Most Licensed Debut Producer and Group. Public Radio Exchange, known as PRX and also a Knight grantee, uses technology to share significant stories to millions of listeners.

For poets and performing artists such as Kavindu Jointe, Knight-supported programs have helped them find a platform for expression and to speak on social issues.

“Without Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, I would not be the same person I am today,” Jointe says. “That pertains to my activism as well. I realized that I had things to say that mattered.”

Jointe joined the organization five years ago when he was 18. He is now the organization’s booking manager and assistant artistic director.

“I was completely directionless,” says Jointe, speaking about his life before joining Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, which he credits with instilling in him the will to speak out against injustice.

In September, Jointe traveled to Ferguson, Mo., performing poetry protesting the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Now, he’s been accepted into two MFA poetry programs and plans on writing a book of poetry.

Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement Executive Director Greg Corbin, who founded the volunteer-run nonprofit in 2006, stresses that the organization goes beyond teaching writing.

“We transform the lives of young people and create citizens for the global community who become hands-on social change agents,” Corbin says.

The organization provides literary arts education programs for youth ages 13-19, promoting creative expression, life skills and leadership.

 “With Knight funding we have been able to create a safe space for young people to gather and build community,” Corbin says, adding that several poetry organizations in Philadelphia are doing this type of work.

The Philly Pigeon Poetry Slam event, held every first Friday from October through May, is one of the programs helping poets develop further. A poetry workshop precedes the slam, which was co-created by poets Jacob Winterstein and Alyesha Wise

“We’re a part of a larger performance poetry community,” Winterstein says. With the support of Knight Foundation, the Philly Slam sent a team of poets to the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif., last summer. 

Web developer and Philly Pigeon Poetry Slam regular Warren Longmire believes that the organization’s professionalism is its biggest asset.

“It’s well organized and takes itself seriously.”

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