The silence inside the Centro del Barrio space in the Sunnyside neighborhood broke as young poets spoke words packed with pride, sorrow, hurt and happiness.
“I stand tall like an oak tree.”
“I am a struggle wrapped in success.”
“I am a brown dot on a white page.”
“I want my dad to give me a break from being the perfect kid.”
“I learned at a young age that Black kids don’t get the luxury to grow old… Little Black boy you have your whole life ahead of you, they say.”
The teens have this outlet of expression at the Healing Words Open Mic hosted by Words to Power, a non-profit organization that hosts spoken word poetry workshops for underserved youth. Its workshops take place in elementary, middle and high schools across Denver and at the Barrio community space.
The program is run by Ara Cruz, who said it started with the need to allow youth to express themselves and for adults to simply listen.
“It starts with our words and what we say to ourselves and what we say to others. A lot of time those words can tear us down just as bad as something physical,” Cruz said. “It’s about giving kids the opportunity to see their words through spoken word… In our workshops we usually talk about [our] struggles and how we’re all going to have these issues that we’re all going to face. So, how do we deal with them? And poetry can be one way.”
At the March 24 Open Mic, Gina Alfaro, or Ms. Lisa, emceed the event with her father, calling up teens to the stage to let their voices be heard and even giving the audience a taste of her own poetry, a piece about chisme (gossip) in school.
Alfaro, a sophomore who said she’s been writing poetry since she was eight years, illuminates when she dubs herself an artist.
“Listening to poetry is soothing to the soul,” Alfaro said. “Not in a corny way or like kumbaya, but I just feel that listening to the community and then having people just listen to you, it heals you. You just have to let it out sometimes and say hey this is what I’m feeling. You just want an audience sometimes… People need an outlet.”
And the teens took advantage of that outlet. Many talked about their ancestors or family, how they care for them and vice versa, arguments, love, expectations and togetherness. Some went the inspirational route, comparing life to a football game with trials, tribulations and winnings. Each poet received a $25 gift card for their efforts. Cruz said it’s a way to incentivize the kids while also paying them for their time.
At a time when youth violence and youth deaths are on the minds of all Denverites, Cruz said allowing kids to express themselves and providing safe spaces for them to exist is vital.
On March 27th, a 28-year-old opened fire at a school in Nashville, Tennessee, killing three 9-year-olds and three adults before police killed them.
On March 22, a 17-year-old East High School student shot and wounded two administrators before fleeing the scene and ending his own life.
Another East High student, Luis Garcia, was shot outside of school in late February, later passing.
Another East High student was shot and wounded near the school, closer to the Carla Madison Recreation Center in September. Denver Police said the accused in that case were two 16-year-olds.
In August, 14-year-old Josiaz “JoJo” Aragon was killed outside the Southwest Recreation Center in the Marston neighborhood. DPD later arrested a 17-year-old.
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, violent crime in the DPD jurisdiction has increased steadily since 2015. Violent crime includes murder, non-consensual sex offenses and aggravated assault.
Crimes involving youth, either as victims or arrestees have also increased. The Denver Gazette reports that 12 juveniles were arrested for murder last year and 14 juveniles were murdered last year.
In 2019, Denver Health said, “some 700 young people are killed or injured by guns, or are victims of gun-related crimes each year.”
In that same year, Mayor Michael B. Hancock convened the Youth Violence Prevention Action Table, a group tasked with developing a plan to address youth violence.
A portion of those plans talk about the need for more youth programs, such as Struggle to Love and Words to Power.
“We are going to experience trauma, difficulties, struggle but how do we keep moving forward and how do we heal ourselves from those wounds that we experience on a daily basis…Our focus is on our kids first and pushing them to see the power in themselves,” Cruz said.
That focus is shared through the other collaborators of the Open Mic, such as the Denver Healing Generations Network, a non-profit created in 2013 that focuses on healing generational trauma with youths and adults. They also run the Barrio center. Then there’s GRASP (Gang Rescue and Support Project), a youth intervention program.
GRASP is one of the longest running youth intervention programs, starting in 1991. Their program involves crisis response, community outreach, gang tattoo removal and healing circles.
Felipe Perez is an outreach counselor with GRASP and he said events like the Open Mic are on par with GRASP’s values because the goal is to listen. There’s no advice given, unless asked, just listening ears for any matter big or small.
“I always remind people, and they look at me all crazy, but when we were made, we were made with two ears and one mouth in order to listen,” Perez said.
Perez said that, through listening, GRASP, Denver Healing and Words to Power can help students “heal” and healing can mean anything.
Jojo Padilla who works with Denver Healing said some youth need healing from generational trauma, especially minority children. From machismo history in Chicano culture, to the slave trade and to the history of systemic racism against these cultures, Padilla said children can carry that weight around, plus the woes of the world today.
“This generation of kids has been through it,” Padilla said. “Kids come in and they carry all of society’s ills and stuff and problems on their backs all day…If we can understand our history, then we can understand why we are the way we are and then we can heal from it and healing is the ultimate goal. There’s different ways to come at that…youth programming, community engagement…it’s about relationship making and meeting the kid where they’re at.”
Perez said others need healing just from day-to-day drama. He said it may seem trivial, but again, listening is the key.
“Some of these youth, they find their validation in situations that are not good for them, so it’s up to us to create a space where their expressions can be validated,” Perez said. “That’s what this event is. We’re putting words into action and giving them space.
Two student poets Moe Awaken, a student from Manual High School and Sophi Garcia, a student at Colorado High School Charter GES, were the main features of the March 24 event.
Before Moe performed, she acknowledged the trauma East students have been facing.
“I want to send peace, love and light to East High School.”
They went on to perform two poems, one about love and one about Black youth.
Sophi performed four poems and she said they were all meant to be motivational. One focused on a forgotten penny that wished to be dime but realized, as a penny, they were equally important.
Sophi said motivational poems are her favorite because everyone needs a push forward.
“I want people to learn, like you can do this… the world is yours. The world is your oyster,” Sophi said. “I want people to learn that they’re not alone, so I like to show people that in my poetry…and other people can show what they want through their poems. This is just an outlet and it’s been the best thing ever.”
Once all the poets spoke, it was time for the dancers. The No “Mo” Violence Cultural Dance Group is run by Cathy Maestas. The “Mo” is an ode to her son Geranimo, who was fatally shot in 1993 by gang members when he was 16 years old.
“From this tragedy, my god sent me on a mission, a mission to find alternatives for our youth to not be in gangs,” Maestas said. “In my program, I build up leaders. The youth of today are leaders of tomorrow.”
The dancers started with traditional folklorico before switching up to hip hop and at the end they cheered, “No Mo Violence!”
The next Healing Words Open Mic is scheduled for June 23 at La Raza Park. Cruz said this event will focus on a new Words to Power book release. At the end of every school year, Cruz said the program publishes the students’ work as a way to show them the fruits of their labor.
So far the group has published two books, “Our Words Are Powerful: We Are Here For A Reason” and “Our Words Are Powerful: The Struggle Is Real…So Is Our Resilience.”
Cruz and Perez agreed, events like the Open Mic are both about expression and listening. As long as youth continue to express themselves and adults actively listen, the kids can find their comfort.
“The youth are speaking but people are not listening,” Perez said. “Art is a form of expression. You know, we’re crying through our art. Poetry is a form of art. Dance is a form of art. Drawing and painting and I think if we’re able to give these tools or resources to kids, give them a form of expression, things might be a little bit different.”
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