Inspired Poetry: Ode to Louder Than a Bomb

 

On Friday, February 24, Benevolent Media presented Louder Than a Bomb, a fundraiser party to benefit Split This Rock and the DC Youth Slam Team in Washington, D.C.

Friends and fans joined us at The Dunes for a special evening featuring live performances by D.C.’s best and brightest youth poets, plus excerpts from Louder Than a Bomb, an award-winning documentary about the world’s largest teen poetry slam, based out of Chicago.

Funds raised at the party will help stage the first-ever Louder Than A Bomb High School Poetry Slam Festival in the District in June 2012.

One of our guests was so inspired by the cause that she attended the following day's DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals at Busboys and Poets, and then wrote a poem inspired by the performers.

“Ode to Louder Than a Bomb” by Heather Sullivan

A mic. The floor. One stage.

Vocal canvas for the word painter. Healing haunt of poetic landmines. Tepid teapot set to flame.

Scalding, seeping, weeping, humble…your waters begin to rain.

You cry; I cry. You flood; I brace. You pause; I wait.

Nothing is more important than what you’re about to say.

Standing in your shoes, I lose my brother. Living in your home, I lose my parents. Loving with your heart, I chase the mangoes, too.

But all is not lost.

Your Community stands around you. Your Occupation stands within you. And Your Beauty sings the highest notes we may ever hear.

With this mic, on this floor, center stage…

You bend all insecurities with courage. Whiteboards will rise in ovation Because you stood facing the Light.

About the poet: Heather Sullivan works at an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C. and dreams of being an artist full-time. She currently resides in Arlington, Va.

Love Stories: A Day of Generosity and Compassion through Media

 

Yeah, yeah, Valentine's Day is over-hyped and hyper-marketed. But no amount of commercialism can undercut the genuine power of love!

Here's a round-up of some of the day's best love stories...

Cowbird's "First Loves" saga gives people a multimedia platform to remember the first time they fell in love. Read a love letter from the founder of Cowbird to learn more about the expanding website.

The masterful storytellers at NPR released a set of Valentine's Day e-cards.

The award-winning documentary The Interrupters continues to spread the message of compassion and peace with its premiere on PBS tonight at 9:00 p.m. EST.

StoryCorps celebrates love with its animated shorts, like Danny & Annie, and a recently released book of true-life love stories, "All There Is." You can also send a special StoryCorps e-card to your sweetie.

The Jubilee Project is celebrating Valentine's Day as Generosity Day, a day of sharing love with everyone. Watch this video to learn more about the movement to make a difference in our communities.

HBO is tonight airing the documentary The Loving Story, a documentary film tells the dramatic story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in Virginia in the 1950s, and their landmark Supreme Court Case, Loving v. Virginia, that changed history.

Have any links you love? Share them in the comments.

Q&A with Jonathan Tucker: Poetry as an Agent for Change

Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, "JBT" is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. When not working with students he can be found around D.C. performing and hosting open mics at Busboys and Poets, The Fridge, and other community art spaces. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.

"We can all benefit from dedicating ourselves to a craft like poetry," he said. "Giving life to these words and stories—it's a healthy practice for life and for communities to listen when these poets get up and speak."

Tucker and his peers are organizing the first-ever Louder Than A Bomb High School Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C., to be held in June 2012. The event will be based on the largest teen poetry slam festival in the world, as featured in the award-winning documentary film of the same name (read our Q&A with Chicago filmmaker Greg Jacobs to learn more.)

Tucker, who works for youth poetry nonprofit Split This Rock, is partnering with Benevolent Media to host a special fundraiser party on February 24 to support festival planning. (RSVP on Facebook or buy your tickets on Eventbrite.) I sat down with him to learn more about his passion for poetry and what he wants the community to know about making positive change through reading, writing and performing.

What makes poetry an agent for community organizing?

The community organizing comes in through the reaction to the process of reading, writing, listening and performing. In that reaction, you start to enter poetry circles—it becomes a network for support. You don’t go on being the same person after hearing a poem that shakes you, that moves you. You want to understand the poet on a completely different level. The poetry helps us understand one another.  You find these people that all become concerned about one another, and they want to see each other's growth and development. For community organizing, it becomes an amazing community to build.

I've used poetry for raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. I was working for a year with Children's National Medical Center's peer educator program, Teens Against the Spread of AIDS (TASA.) They would do these "Rock the Block" events several times a year, when they would go out and pass out literature and condoms and safe sex packets. We’d stop in the middle of the street to perform and speak. We incorporated some theater into it. I was also doing poetry workshops with the youth. Some of the pieces were re-purposed and used for peer education, with juniors and seniors in high school. We had two big shows throughout the year, including a fashion show with poetry in between.

I've also used poetry to raise awareness about dating and violence, working with Student Advocates for Education about Rape (SAFER). It was a monologue where we would go and do workshops with different groups, sports teams and student groups, and we’d have several poems and dialogues addressing the issues. We were able to engage some people that otherwise might not have been engaged.

The whole reason I got into poetry, too, was because of anti-war stuff. I did poetry in middle school and high school, gave it up, and got back into it in college. At the same time, we were invading Iraq. I was involved in anti-war activities in the lead-up to it. My first really good slam poems were about that.

How do you measure whether a poem makes a difference?

Some of it, you’ll never see. You don’t know who you affect in an audience with a poem, in the same way you don't know who you affect in a classroom or a program you run. Sometimes people come back years later and say, "you know what, what you said to me that day really changed my life." Mostly, we see it in the actual actions taken by individuals that write something revealing about themselves. For example, they'll be talking about illness or sickness, and then we see them taking action to get healthy.

Why is it important to bring Louder Than a Bomb to the DC/MD/VA area?

It was going to happen whether or not we called it "Louder Than a Bomb," but it's nice to partner with someone doing something successful, instead of reinventing the wheel.

In D.C., almost every night of the week, there are so many poets and writers doing this stuff. There’s a vibrant culture here spreading, but we don’t see it given any institutional support, especially with young people. These are the people that we need to be hearing from; this is who needs to be up in front, getting on stage. They bring out these statements that are about peace and justice and healing and transforming in communities—they're the exact kids that everybody needs to listen to. We give them a microphone, but more than that,  we give them time, we help them work on their words and what they’re dealing with at home and in their community.

As poets, we like to play with words and language, and there are tangible skills that help kids achieve success in reading and writing. But more than that, it's about  listening to someone else’s story in a peaceful way. That's where the community building comes in. The competition is just a game we play, but it doesn’t hold power over us. It doesn't mean anything; it’s just random judges. It’s numbers to poems; it makes no sense. But it’s a fun little game.

How can people get involved in supporting Split This Rock and Louder Than a Bomb in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?

We need website support. We need volunteer photographers and videographers. We need poetry coaches, who can come in after school and work with a team of young poets and guide them and keep them organized. We need street team promoters. We need someone to help with graphic design. We need people with access to free or donated sign-making and T-shirt making. We need young poets. We need institutional support through donations, or even just putting on happy hours at your local pub. To get involved, write to slam@splitthisrock.org.

Q&A with Greg Jacobs: Louder Than a Bomb

 

The uplifting and inspiring documentary film Louder Than a Bomb follows four Chicago high school teams in their journey to compete in the world's largest teen poetry slam, created by local nonprofit Young Chicago Authors that empowers youth through writing, publication and performance education.

The feature film begins at the start of the school year, six months prior to the slam competition. Each team must prepare at least five poems: four solo poems and a four-person group piece.

Says one of the young poets featured in the film:

"Writing a poem does not change the world. Learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different from you—I would like to say that that's changing the world. And if not, it's definitely coming much, much closer."

I chatted with filmmaker and co-director Greg Jacobs, from Siskel/Jacobs Productions, to talk about the power of poetry and the unexpected consequences of making a socially conscious documentary about it.

"We've never had this experience," Jacobs says, "of making a movie that makes a difference."

After the film made its television debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network on January 5, the filmmakers say they hope to "seed" Louder Than a Bomb competitions in cities across the country. You can support the film by spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, host your own screening, buy the educational DVD for a school, join the mailing list, or donate to Young Chicago Authors to help launch LTABs in cities across the country.

What makes LTAB unique?

It's different than the way slams are typically done around the country. The idea is that you create a team in the school, and that team becomes a place where kids can be vulnerable around each other and train themselves to listen and edit and hone their craft. By the time they get to the actual event, they've already started to change. They're developing skills that they may not be able to in other ways.

This thing that they thought was a competition between teams starts to break down. It's a big bait-and-switch, where the competition dissolves and you realize it's this incredible community of people who are also there to write and listen and express themselves, but from places that you'd never know about in your city, because cities are so segregated.

They're hearing the reality of everyone's stories, and those stories turn out to be not wildly dissimilar.

In 11 years, there's never been a fight or incident at Louder Than a Bomb. You get this, "Wow-I-wish-the-world-was-like-that" feeling afterwards.

Starting the teams in the schools turns it into less of a competition-centered thing and more of a pedagogy, education-centered thing. In turn, it can change the culture of the schools. You've got these normal kids doing this cool academic activity, and they can go on and have success at this bigger competition. Other kids may be hanging out, just being in the room, and word gets out, and hopefully it becomes another accepted perennial club at school.

What makes poetry a powerful vehicle for social change?

In general, writing and expressing yourself in language is much cooler than it used to be when I was in high school because of hip-hop. Slam poetry or spoken word is a cousin to hip-hop. But canonical poetry—old school poetry—is the cousin that you hope doesn't come to Thanksgiving.  Hip-hop is the cousin that you want to hang out with all the time. Because of that, kids can gravitate from writing rhymes to writing poems.

Louder Than a Bomb puts the experience of the kid outside the school inside the classroom. For a lot of kids, they've never had that before; school has no connection whatsoever to their lives. By starting with the question, "tell me about yourself," it gives them something to hook into and engage with, and that hook can pull them into other things academically.

Then there's another opportunity to express themselves, which is hugely therapeutic for a lot of kids.

Finally, it really requires a lot of active, empathic, attentive listening. It's a skill that people don't always have.

What was your intention for the film?

Our background is in TV documentaries, and you don't really get the chance to make a difference. In Louder Than a Bomb, there's a phrase: "The point is not the points; it's the poetry." In TV, the point actually is the points, it's the ratings.

During the making of the film, we just wanted to make an entertaining movie. We thought, if we can make  it as entertaining as possible, people would come to it and the rest would take care of itself. It's like the Mad Hot Ballroom model—after that film was made, all this money was spent on ballroom dancing classes for middle-schoolers.

In reality, the response of the audience was so much more intense and emotional than we had experienced before.

We came to the realization that something we're doing as a documentary can really affect people.

We haven't done a feature documentary before. We had successful TV documentaries. 102 Minutes That Changed America was simulcast in more than 150 countries to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was seen by 25 to 30 million people. It's something we're incredibly proud of and is now being used in classes to introduce kids to what happened that day. But that's not a campaign; it's just a really fortunate by-product.

What is your outreach plan?

It's a three-pronged multi-layered thing: First, you start off in school with an educational DVD. The excitement that the movie generates will get teachers and kids wanting to do this and ask, "Why don't we have this in our neighborhood and our city?" Then, you use the curriculum and poems and film to get the kids writing about themselves and writing together. We've created this infrastructure now that allows cities to come to us and say they want to do this and we help them—through Young Chicago Authors—launch Louder Than a Bomb in their city. That's the third step.

The final step is that we're about to launch a youth poetry Ning network, a closed social network for youth poets. We've got this great Louder Than a Bomb community, but can we create this great feeling online? So that kids in Chicago can connect with kids in D.C. or Boston or Tulsa? And create the same type of incredible transformative community that you get live, so that kids can do this all year long? It's an experiment. Will they want to post themselves performing their pieces online? How will they react to each other? Can you keep it positive?

We're trying to find the cities that don't have the infrastructure right now. It helps when there's a critical mass of kids that want to do this, and teachers that are engaged in it, and the film lights the spark.

Do you have any requests for collaboration?

Eventually, we hope to make our money back for the film. If anybody has a huge golf tournament-sized check for the film, that would be awesome. You can also buy an educational DVD for a school; it makes a great gift. We also welcome donations to seed Louder Than a Bomb in other cities, or to support Young Chicago Authors.

What have been some of your most memorable filmmaking moments or reactions from the audience?

When you see the film, it's the kids in the film that are the stars. They're really inspiring and amazing.

At the Cleveland International Film Festival, in an auditorium of 250 Cleveland public school kids, this one kid stood up and said that, on behalf of the entire audience, "it was the best true story movie we've ever seen," and everybody burst into applause.

At one screening in Little Rock, Arkansas, one woman started to say how moved she was by the film. Waving her hands, she burst into tears, sobbed, walked away, and came back to finish her  sentence.

After a screening that Chicago Mayor Emanuel introduced, a fourth or fifth grade girl said to [Young Chicago Authors Artistic Director] Kevin Coval,  "I just want to know what it's like to have made something that inspiring."

The individual connections with people and creating real concrete institutions or events that are having an impact— it's just been successful beyond anything we've imagined.

Do you have any advice for aspiring benevolent filmmakers?

We started our film careers at a moment that was really different than it was now. The model then was that you show your film at the Sundance Film Festival and someone buys it for a million dollars and the rest takes care of itself.

It's now the Wild West and no one knows the best way to do it. It's all about creating your own path through all the tools now at your disposal. Think in terms of multiple distribution channels, multiple revenue streams. Start thinking about your publicity and outreach and social media the moment after you start thinking about the idea of the film. Most importantly, make a great story and try to tell it well.

Memories of 9/11: "The Day After"

 

On September 11, 2001, I was 16 years old, a junior in high school. I remember wearing a long grey skirt and a bright red cotton top. It was a sunny day. It's funny how those inconsequential details are so vivid.

My mother came to pick me up from school. She was silently frantic, swallowing her few words. She hadn't heard from my dad, yet. He worked in the Pentagon. She also couldn't get in touch with my sister, who worked in Manhattan. She needed company, I guess. We drove quickly back home. I reassured her everything would be OK, but then we watched the Twin Towers fall on television, and neither of us were so sure anymore. The local news channels in D.C. showed images of injured people on stretchers rolling out of ambulances. My mother kept looking to see if one of them could be my father. We still didn't get a phone call.

We were lucky. No one we knew was hurt or killed. The phone lines finally re-opened, and both my sister and father were doing just fine, just frazzled.

The next day, I wrote a poem, a free-write, in my journal. It's called, "The Day After." I had forgotten that I wrote it. I discovered it this morning, while rummaging through an old box in my childhood bedroom. I never shared it with anyone until now.

Yesterday, I cried for a stranger.

I woke up this morning, not wanting to get out of bed. My heart is too heavy. It drags me down.

The planes that exploded ignited a part of me, too. Skin melts in fire. So do families, and friends, and colleagues, and communities. Tears can't even put the fire out. I didn't think fire could burn from a distance.

Where I live, the sky is blue. Even the heavens are sad. Yesterday, I cried for a stranger - and my eyes still hurt. All I can see is my own tears. I don't see smoke. I don't see fire. I don't see rubble. I don't see beauty, either. Ugliness dulled my world. Or maybe I really can see beauty. I just can't feel it. I can't feel anything. But I feel everything. I feel everything and nothing. These feelings are almost too much to bear, like the death toll.

We blame a man we don't know, we point fingers at a country we've never been to, And we cry for strangers.

I'm not used to today, And I can't get used to yesterday.

We're united and torn apart at the same time, And I'm disconnected, because I don't want to talk about war, But I can't seem to talk about peace either. Because I forget what it is.

In school, there were five minutes of silence - I remember that peace is silence. I held my head in my hands, dizzy, trying to catch tears And wipe away pain on a white Kleenex. Soft - Not like the hard, black, charred rubble.

Today's setting sun is hot on my black jacket. Black is the color of death and rememberance and evil. I don't want to wear evil. This heat is the devil's, not the sun's. This is Satan's fire. Sun: set. Set. Settle down. Something needs to show me how to settle Down. Maybe it never happened. I feel good now. Is it wrong to feel good?

If I could praise something I would. I can praise hope. Hope is the stuff dreams are made of. Despair is what you find in nightmares. Hope is candlelight vigils, and flags, and smiles, And hopeful seekers, seeking lost loves, Hidden in the belly of a building we can't save. But we can save ourselves And each other.

The Future of Media: News Filters

 "Positive Outlook" by ViaMoi on Flickr

Are news filters giving us an artificially “positive outlook?” Photo by ViaMoi.

Over the last decade, the world of news media has changed significantly, allowing more voices to share their stories and more ears to listen. There has been a convergence of major media conglomerates, the introduction of social media, and the spread of the Internet, including the ever popular browser search tool. All of these new methods of communicating and obtaining information means that people don’t have to go very far to find news stories they want to learn about. But does this method of learning about the world really introduce us to new news, or just news that is filtered specifically for our personal interests? 

As I ask myself these questions, I am not exactly sure what the answer is, but I am pretty sure that yes, we are getting self-prescribed news. From an interview with Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in The Telegraph:

The convergence of search, location and social is the next big narrative. Schmidt says that people who “opt in” to the system will begin experiencing a much richer relationship with technology, aided by their computerised “personal assistant.” “We still think of search as something you type,” Schmidt said. “Perhaps a decade from now, you will think, well, that was interesting, I used to type but now it just knows.“ How does it know? Well, on mobiles we know where you are, down to the nearest foot. You’ve chosen to log in, with your permission, and it knows where you are and it can provide a personalised service. 

Does this make us more susceptible to a narrow point of view or does this open our eyes to a wide range of ideas and stories? The New York Times is going to be recommending pages to its readers based on the content that they have already read.  “The whole idea is to expose our readers to as much of our great journalism as we can,” says Marc Frons, the Times’ new Chief Technology Officer for digital operations. 

On the web, it can be hard to find the things you like — not to mention the things you don’t know you’d like until you like them. The new Recommendation engine, Frons says, “allows us to expose content to our readers that they wouldn’t see any other way.” And it allows the news organization, more broadly, “to establish a more personal connection between what we do online and what our readers do online.”

The Times will be rolling out this new approach to its readers in the next couple weeks. The Washington Post is also preparing to launch a free news-aggregation website, called Trove, to personalize the news experience for its readers (the site is currently in private beta.) This will be another test to see what happens with readership for some of the less popular topics. Will this mean that certain parts of the paper are going to become a thing of the past? Will it continue to mean people might miss important historical events? Consider this: 52% of Americans have heard little or nothing about the anti-government protests in Egypt, according to research from the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press.

Filtering to Gain Social Network Value by Intersection Consulting

What do we gain (or sacrifice) by creating personalized news feeds? Image by Mark Smiciklas.

As we’ve written about before, the future of media is storytelling, one where the stories we read and watch are the ones we believe, and thus, history is in our mind’s eye. New search and curation tools like Qwiki or Storify will give viewers a more interactive way to experience these stories. But I hope we don’t miss out on the big events in the world just because we don’t find them interesting.

The Future of Media is Storytelling

“As we move to this world where we consume things on screen and the lines blur between television and radio and the printed word and every medium, everything is going to be catered to storytelling,” says writer Nick Bilton in a recent interview with Wired.com.

The techie journalist, who’s written about everything from crowdsourcing hamburgers to the creation of the anti-Facebook, just published a new book, “I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted.” In it, he explains why surgeons should play video games and how pornographers are futurists, among other forecasts. His main point, though, is that the internet is going to encompass every element of our lives, not just media consumption: “I think it’s going to be in everything: electricity, our clothes, our cars, our pets.”

His book itself is an interactive experience—users can scan QR Codes at the beginning of each chapter, which, when scanned, will take them to a website where they can consume additional multimedia content and leave comments. Or, you could just read it on your iPad.