First, write a list of characteristics you must have to be accepted by your family and friends, Patrice Hill told 25 students in a Grant High School classroom this week. Choose one that defines you.
Then, cross it out and write, “That’s not who I am” underneath, she said. Now free write about why you can’t be defined by one word.
Students hunched over the fold-out tables, put pencil to paper and started writing.
Hill is the coordinator and a poet-mentor for Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, or SAYS, an organization using slam poetry and spoken word to fight illiteracy and promote personal expression in disadvantaged youth in school districts around Sacramento.
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SAYS is one of 18 organizations that will receive grants ranging from $25,000 to $60,000, the Sacramento Mayor’s Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force announced this month. All told, groups will receive $680,000, addressing everything from challenges related to fatherlessness to instilling leadership skills in young men.
The grants come as Sacramento grapples with a sudden rise in violent crime, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where gangs have a significant presence. An annual FBI crime report recently showed that Sacramento had 1,830 violent crimes between January and June last year, a 25 percent increase over the same period in the prior year, the biggest jump among the 25 largest U.S. cities.
Khaalid Muttaqi, director of the anti-gang task force, said in the past, the city simply directed more money toward traditional law enforcement efforts to counter gang violence. This time around, Muttaqi and task force members recognized that community organizations are better equipped to handle some aspects of the problem.
“The city’s not going to go in when there’s a shooting, go into the home and console the family and try to go to the next family and say let’s not retaliate, let’s work together,” he said. “We don’t have the street cred.”
SAYS worked with students this week at Grant High School, which experienced one of last year’s highest-profile homicides near the Del Paso Heights campus. Football player Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo was killed as he and friends were driving back to Grant for a playoff game after getting a bite to eat. Police in February arrested 16-year-old Keymontae Lindsey and he faces trial as an adult on charges that include homicide with a gang enhancement.
SAYS will receive $60,000 from the anti-gang program. The group’s founder, Vajra Watson, said some of the funding will pay for more poet mentor educators and case managers, though she doesn’t like to call students “cases.” The rest will go to comprehensive training in how to counsel young people who have experienced trauma.
SAYS poet mentors act as advocates for the students in and outside of school. During the workshop, Hill took a moment to chastise one student for skipping a class last week.
To complete Monday’s session, students volunteered to stand up and read what they had written. One student, Savan Reyes, used slam poetry technique – a blend of spoken word and rap – to express his feelings about the death of Clavo. Others shared stories of abuse and deaths of family and friends.
“I am not ‘sick,’ ” Kiara Grace said, delivering a poem about how her cancer diagnosis does not define her. Grace and fellow student Mercy Lagaaia joined the program nearly four years ago when they entered high school. They said writing about their lives helps them release a lot of pent-up emotion.
“We don’t necessarily talk to our friends about our life situations or our teachers or feel comfortable enough to tell the counselors here,” said Kiara, 17. “So being able to do what we did today, writing it down on paper, thinking I’m talking to myself, I’m doing this for myself, it helps us get through a lot of things that we wouldn’t be able to just holding it in.”
“It gives voice to a lot of kids in this area, in this predicament, because we’re going through a lot at this school and it helps you cope with it,” said Mercy, 17.
Watson said her poet-mentors ask their students to be vulnerable and talk about the most difficult parts of their lives and they get a lot of responses they feel ill-equipped to handle.
As the students open up, Watson said, mentors have asked for training in how to respond to testimonies of extreme trauma and how to build systems of support. Hill said as the program grew, it became clear that the work needed to extend beyond the classroom.
“Young people often feel voiceless,” Watson said. “SAYS meets them where they’re at and we help them redefine their roles in the world and if that’s not gang prevention and violence prevention, I don’t know what is.”
SAYS was one of 36 organizations that applied for the grants. Vice Mayor Rick Jennings, the council member overseeing the task force, said he’s been in the nonprofit world in Sacramento for more than 20 years and he had only heard of four or five of them.
“That was one of the incredible findings,” he said. “We found 35-plus agencies that came to the table with a strategy of how we were going to impact this area.”
The next step is to get all the grant recipients in a room to talk about how they can help each other, Muttaqi said.
Watson said this will be crucial because SAYS works with a wide variety of youth issues that it can’t address alone. For instance, some of the youths are homeless, but SAYS doesn’t provide homeless services. Being able to link up with a nonprofit that works with homeless youths would close that gap in care.