Pass The Chalk Editorial Team

In April, 14-year-old Christine Vela, a student in Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project, shared a poem called “Breaking the Silence.” It included these lines:

With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet,

I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say

My whole life.

I’m lesbian.

Christine recorded a video reading of her poem for the Poet Warriors Project, and this act of bravery garnered national attention (a BuzzFeed staff writer, who highlighted the video in an LGBTQ poetry roundup, said, “Seriously, I have nothing more to say—just watch.”) This June, as TFA celebrates Pride Month, Poet Warriors founder Emily Southerton asked Christine about social justice, SAFE classrooms, and more.

Emily Southerton: With your poem, you broke the silence and shared your own personal story. What role does personal storytelling play in social justice movements?

Christine Vela: Personal storytelling, especially in social justice movements, plays the role of illustrating day-to-day oppression in a relatable way. This concept is manifested in a variety of art forms, and is especially prominent in spoken-word poetry. I believe it somewhat relates to the concept of “show, don’t tell,” as well, however simple it may seem. One of my favorite slam poets, Guante, has just begun a series on the art of spoken word poetry. In his very first video in the series, he explains the difference between showing and telling, and to summarize this concept, I’ll simply use a quote he says in his video: “Don’t write a poem about war. Write a poem about what it’s like to stand in your brother’s empty bedroom.” In the former example, it is easy to dismiss the concept in question, whereas in the latter, it is more emotionally insightful, playing upon the audience’s feelings in a way that they can better understand. The concrete imagery of a brother’s empty bedroom makes the concept of war more real to one who has never experienced it. It is the authenticity of one’s personal narrative—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that advances movements, and not simply the discussion of ideas in a way that leaves out the humanity of the people in question, though the discussion of those ideas is certainly important as well.

Emily Southerton

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree

While night comes on gently,

Dark like me—

That is my dream!

—Langston Hughes, from “Dream Variations”

Langston Hughes dreamed of a world where his being was not seen as a harsh contrast to the norm, but one where his story was understood to be as much a part of the universal fabric as night was a part of the day.

This April, the Poet Warriors also had a bold dream—we dreamed that we’d be heard, that we’d be understood, and that our dreams would matter as much as any other.

Christine Vela framed our month by calling the nation’s attention to the silencing effect of the single story, showing how our booming national dialogue so often excludes diverse voices and closets America’s truths: “It’s dark and it’s lonesome and it’s not at all where/I want to be,/But most of all, it’s silent/It’s hushed down to a nearly inaudible whisper.” Like Hughes, Christine used metaphors of darkness and light to dream of a better America, one where all can speak boldly and be heard. She spoke of an experience that many can identify with, “waiting for that door to burst open and let light come in,” but then stepped forward to be an example; she brought her own story to light, she offered it to all of us, and claimed her place within the American story. “With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet/I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say/My whole life.”

Christine opened the door for herself to enter the national dialogue, and she led the way for many others to follow. Throughout the month, hundreds of Poet Warriors boldly stepped forward and added their stories to our story, and we even had the privilege of watching as they did.

Emily Southerton

"This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, [is] such an American question that we've been asking since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America.”

-Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco in a 2013 interview with NPR


“Nothing can stop me from living here

In Westwood,

Not the money

Or the drugs

Or even the guns.

This is my home.

The one I grew up in.”

-Lilia Duran-Cabral, Colorado Poet Warrior, excerpt from “Westwood”

Whether it’s the story of a secret space, our collective spaces, ours homes, our streets, or our borders—stories of place are as unique to the writer as they are universal to us all. Across the country students are writing about their place, and within these stories, we see the story of our nation as a whole. Students grapple with the questions that have gripped our nation since its founding—what is home? What is my place? What effect does this place have on me? And what effect do I have on this place?

Emily Southerton

“Now I will do nothing but listen

to accrue what I hear into this song

to let sounds contribute toward it.”

-Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

Walt Whitman taught us that the story of a stranger is as much a part of ourselves as our own story. He argued that we better know our own identity when we understand another’s, and for that reason, Whitman listened to others’ songs of themselves, and then in reply, vulnerably offered his own,

“I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

This National Poetry Month, TFA’s students are writing the stories of themselves, which in turn reveals the story of us.

Mona Zahir

Bob (Robert) Bullington (Dallas-Fort Worth '13) teaches 3rd grade math and science at OM Roberts Elementary in Dallas, TX.

On Saturday, approximately 350 students, educators, and community leaders gathered at the third annual Wake UP! Student Empowerment Summit—an event hosted by Teach For America and the Possibility Project that gives students a voice in the conversation on education. Last year, I attended the event as a senior at Vance High School and Wake UP! student representative. This year, a few weeks from the end of my freshman year at Winston-Salem State University, I returned as keynote speaker—more convinced than ever of the role young voices must play in the movement for educational justice.

My awareness of differences in education opportunity started early on, as I moved between a few CMS schools. But it wasn’t until my senior year that I fully understood the economic inequalities built into our system. In middle school, my family moved from Charlotte to Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, home to one of the highest-ranked school districts in the nation. During my senior year, we came back to Charlotte and I enrolled at Vance High School, which serves a much lower income student population. Suddenly, the opportunities in front of me looked very different.

I began to make sense of all this when I met Ms. Gelinas, my algebra teacher at Vance and a Teach For America corps member. During class one day, she asked us to write an essay about our views on educational inequity. As I began writing, I started to realize that my anger and frustration weren’t mine alone. My experience was part of something much bigger.

Emily Southerton

This National Poetry Month, TFA student poets across the country are boldly speaking out for change.

After studying poets who would write about identity, family, community, and place in order to powerfully affect our nation’s perspective of its own people, our student Poet Warriors are striving to do the same.

Jennifer Monson, Teach For America ECE and STEM Initiatives Specialist

Teaching early childhood education (ECE) is a serious responsibility—preschool is often the first experience young children have with school. ECE educators have the incredible opportunity to partner with students and their families to set children up for academic and life success, before they even enter Kindergarten.

Emily Southerton

January 15th, the Poet Warriors launched a new initiative in which students self-publish original creative works at in order to teach, empower, and create change. A month later, over 121 student voices have been shared from Philadelphia, New Mexico, Hawaii, and the Mississippi Delta. Our students’ poems have been read and are making a difference in 46 of the 50 United States and in 13 countries around the world! (Fun fact: Bravo to Pakistan which holds the highest average for “duration of visit,” and South Korea which has the highest average for “pages visited!”)

Here are excerpts of what you may have missed last month:

Emily Southerton

“People used to call this city Killadelphia.”

It’s not the most uplifting perspective of what’s historically known as the City of Brotherly Love. It’s sad when it lives up to its tragic reputation, and sadder still when you consider that description comes from 10th grader Nixlot Dameus.  

But that’s not the only Philadelphia knows Nixlot knows.

In his original poem, “On My Way Out,” he writes about the real Philadelphia he grew up in, and all the potential he sees. Whether comparing his city to a pitbull or “gas leaking from a Ford truck,” his work illuminated a unique perspective that’s often overlooked.

His poem is just one of 2500+ poems written with the Poet Warriors Project, a poetry writing workshop that encourages students across the country to write with purpose and put their voice out into the world. Philadelphia’s poems published in mid-January have already been read by people across 47 states and 22 countries. Cathy Kang (Greater Philadelphia ‘12) led her students in producing these poems that challenge preconceived notions about their community, even as the nation turned its attention more toward violence at their school, Delaware Valley High School.

Determined to let students speak for themselves, this week, the Poet Warriors Project followed up with poet, Nixlot E. Dameus, about his work, “On My Way Out.” We asked him a few questions about his poem, and he shared his views on Philadelphia youth, talent, and violence.


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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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