Like many of us, I spent the last months before the election with my heart in my throat, contemplating a future without Obama: a right-wing Supreme Court; the erosion of women’s rights, gay rights, workers’ rights; cuts to medical care and the social safety net, not to mention Big Bird! I shared the frustrations of friends and family in the suburbs (mostly) whose Obama signs got ripped off, over and over. And I was angered by the (usually) unspoken racism of pundits who could give our president no more than an “F” for four years of accomplishments despite the ceaseless game of blockage played by congressional Republicans. So I was glad to see that hate did not triumph this week, and I look forward with hope for greater unity in service of the common good under the leadership of a truly remarkable human being. The election helps remind me of this equation: Hope > Hate.
I find this hope over and over in the words of the children of Detroit, as brought forward by the dedicated, hard-working writers of InsideOut Literary Arts Project, the organization of which, I am proud to say, I am the “fairy godmother” (aka Founder and CEO). For 17 years, following a dream begun and tested in my creative writing classroom at Mumford and then CMA High Schools, we have been following this simple model: poets can be change agents in classrooms, schools, and communities and in the lives of children.
Throughout these years, we at InsideOut have brought the love of words and the challenges of the imagination to over 40,000 youngsters, partnering with their teachers, publishing their work in over 375 separate school literary journals (one for every school we serve), and celebrating them in countless public performances. “With a pen in my hand, I can…” was the refrain called out by our Citywide Poets teen troupe who opened the Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony at Orchestra Hall in 2003. “We are the courtiers of the Poetry Palace,” sang Hanstein Elementary School’s third and fourth graders in the anti-bullying opera they created (libretto, music, stagecraft, and all) and performed at the Detroit Opera House in 2008. “Three-two-one—POW!” declared Citywide Poets’ Joseph Verge, characterizing his birth as the starting gun of his life, in a poem live-streamed from the White House at a youth poetry event in May 2011.
I find hope in the very act of giving words to one’s life and one’s dreams. Sometimes the life in front of us, here in the city of Detroit, is not the best, and the dreams of children are shadowed by violence, personal tragedies, and abandonments born of social conditions that I hope our president will address even more stringently in his second term. In fact, I hope he will take to heart the poems of advice, both serious and silly, penned by our youngest wordsmiths as described in InsideOut Senior Writer Peter Markus’s recent column in the Detroit Free Press.
When given the opportunity to find and express their voices, the hope of our young people shines through. “I am the Obama of my neighborhood,” wrote an IO student at Coffey Middle School as he went about defining, as many of our students do, the city we live in (his poem was published in the 2011 volume of his school’s literary magazine, Changing Faces). The line has stayed with me ever since, for its wit and agency, for the ability to say so much with so few words, and for the tug it gives to make the reader stop, pause and reflect on the world around her.
The election also marks an important anniversary for InsideOut. Three years ago this week, on a sunny Washington DC day, two of IO’s outstanding youth poets accompanied me to the White House, where IO was honored as one of the 2009 recipients of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (then known as “Coming Up Taller”). It remains one of the honors of my life to have taken part in that glittering ceremony hosted by our beautiful First Lady. The love and care with which she carries out all of her duties were in full evidence that day, and I felt doubly cared for—on behalf of all of the writers, children, teachers, and the entire IO family over the years—when she singled us out by name in her remarks. “Perhaps one of the writers from InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit says it best,” she said, discussing the impact of the arts on vulnerable youth. “If you ask a child to dream, he will dream.”
Under the leadership of this White House, we will not lose Big Bird. We have an administration that “gets it” where the arts are concerned. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which confers the NAHYP Awards, has recently published multi-year research findings on the indispensable value of the arts to our children’s futures, and InsideOut proves this to be true. Our evaluations have shown beyond a doubt how young people grow socially, academically, and personally as a result of our programs. This year we are adding new schools, deepening our after-school program, and building collaborations with many wonderful community partners. We are continuing, on behalf of all of the children of Detroit, to dream.
Terry Blackhawk is the author of six poetry collections including her most recent collection The Light Between, which was listed as a top ten poetry best seller. Blackhawk has received grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as ArtServe Michigan’s Governor’s Award for Arts Education and a Detroit Metro Times Progressive Hero Award. She is founder and director of Detroit’s award-winning InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a writers-in-schools program, which inspires creative self expression and literary confidence among thousands of Detroit youth.