The Diatribe uses poetry as a catalyst for social reform

Throughout the summer, The Diatribe held their first nine-week summer programming for students, leading up to their Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show this past Saturday. More than one-hundred people gathered together at Outside Coffee Co to witness 16 students from the program perform their own pieces.

Over the past few years, The Diatribe, a nonprofit poetry organization integrated within the boroughs of the Grand Rapids community, has worked ceaselessly to use poetry as a vehicular tool, urging social reform forward. During the school year, they reposition traditional English lessons, utilizing history and social studies in order to engage with students in new and creative ways. Through these interactions and other school-related programs, the group of poets hand-selected 30 students from middle to high-school to participate in the nine-week youth program.

Diatribe member Rachel Gleason says the exchange in poetry amongst one another sets the tone for listening — an especially vital tool for character development in younger individuals who are still learning about the world around them. Through their collaboration with the school systems, Gleason notes the sharp change in atmosphere shortly afterwards.

“Everyone gets their chance to speak and be heard and be empowered, but it also sets the tone for the importance of listening to other people’s experiences — because that’s how we learn, that’s how we gain compassion, that’s how we gain empathy, and that’s how we can really learn how to uplift others best,” says Gleason.

“We’ve seen it time and time again, especially in schools with young people, that The Diatribe will come in and we’ll do our programming, whether it’s just an assembly or whether it’s just six to nine weeks of programming, and teachers say their students are different. The atmosphere is different. There’s more unity, there’s less bullying.”

The summer program was held every Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth at their Paul I Phillips Location. Gleason explains that during each session, the class spent time reading a poem, dissecting its themes, messages, and poetic devices, and practiced writing prompts based on that particular poem. Gleason’s favorite session was the discussion students held after listening to the poem “When Viola Davis Won” by Ajanae Dawkins — one relating to the representation of women of color.

“It was a really cool experience to see it unfold in that way, especially because of the diversity of the students and where they came from,” she says.

In addition to their summer-youth program, The Diatribe formed a partnership with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, where, earlier in August, they hosted a workshop to promote awareness of housing resources to the youth; an unlikely duo that was effective in bridging the concept of self expression and social studies.

One of the focal points of the workshop, Gleason says, was “To know the law, to know how the law protects them, and to know that they can go somewhere for help.” The workshop itself was created out of the idea that if students were educated about the fair-housing act, they would educate those around them.

“Fair housing is a baseline issue, in that it impacts every part of someone’s life, especially in Grand Rapids right now, with the way the city is changing and the gentrification that’s happening,” says Gleason.

As an extension of the Youth Poetry Pop-Up Show and overall celebration of spoken word poetry, The Diatribe is hosting their Grand Showcase, one of the largest poetry events to be held in West Michigan, on October 6th. It will be held at Fountain Street Church, where alongside nationally known poets Andrea Gibson, Siaara Freeman, and T. Miller, and local poets including Zerilli, Michaelyn, TAE, and KFG, five students who participated in the Pop-Up Show will be selected to perform at the showcase.

What is most important, Gleason says, is poetry’s ability to empower people to share their stories and their voices. Using it as a catalyst for change time and time again, it seems as though the act of exploring identity through poetry quietly opens up one door at a time, enabling individuals to learn from each other’s most intimate experiences as human beings.

Follow this link to learn more about The Diatribe's upcoming Grand Showcase.

Images courtesy of The Diatribe.
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