Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Project Spotlight: Young Poets of Dew More Baltimore Combine Art With Activism — and Bring Home the Prizes

By Mike Cross-Barnet

Is poetry dead? When you think about poets, do you imagine pale young men in 19th century England, bemoaning unrequited love and slowly wasting away from consumption?

If that’s what you think, then Maren Wright-Kerr and the other talented youth of Dew More Baltimore are here to set you straight. Wright-Kerr, Baltimore’s Youth Poet Laureate, and her peers recently took top honors among more than 500 competitors in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Houston, an experience Wright-Kerr describes as “invigorating.”

Dew More, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City, is doing plenty to keep the art of poetry alive and well in Baltimore. With its in-school programs, workshops, organizing and advocacy, Dew More celebrates youth voice and encourages young people to embrace art as a vehicle for social change – an approach that Dew More’s Artistic Coordinator Victor Rodgers calls “artivism.”

“The idea is that there is an imperative relation between arts and activism,” Rodgers explains. “We use art to point out things that are not the way they should be – and then point to a solution.”

Dew More formed in 2013 after the disbanding of an earlier organization, Poetry for the People, which sponsored the Baltimore City Youth Poetry Team. One of the things Wright-Kerr likes best about the organization is the way it makes poetry accessible to ordinary people.

“I feel like poetry has a stereotype, where people believe it has to be something that cannot be understood, cannot be entertaining, be funny, make you cry,” she says.

In her own poems, she says, “I like tricking people … presenting poetry in a very entertaining way, so I can hook people in, and afterward I change people’s opinions, but in a sneaky way.” As an example, she points to her poem “White Boy Magic,” which is one of the pieces Dew More’s Brave New Voices team performed in Houston.

The last few years have been good for Dew More, which also won first place at the 2016 Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C., and has received a lot of positive media coverage, including a write-up in Teen Vogue. But if Dew More is having a “moment,” so is poetry in general, Rodgers believes. He points to the huge popularity of slam poetry in online platforms such as YouTube, or that fact that PBS recently did a special about how youth are leading a poetry renaissance.

“There was a big article a few years ago saying poetry is dead, that poetry is not relevant anymore,” Rodgers recalls. “In the last few years, it’s kind of turned completely around – the NEA is saying that the popularity of poetry has exploded. New and more diverse narratives are being represented in the literary world.”

Wright-Kerr, who is from Baltimore and attends Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, is the fourth Youth Poet Laureate, an official Baltimore City government position within the Mayor’s Office. As an ambassador for the arts, she attends events, gives regular performances, and meets different kinds of people all over the city. One of the perks of the job: At the end of her term, a book of her poems will be published.

Wright-Kerr’s mother, a poet and songwriter who runs Dew More’s Maya Baraka Writers Institute, introduced her to poetry slams and summer institute writing sessions. At first, Wright-Kerr says, “I was kind of dragged to it, but then I actually got into it and said, ‘I’m pretty good at this.’ I was an actress first – I was into being on stage and doing storytelling.” Over time, Wright-Kerr realized, “I didn’t have to tell someone else’s story – I could tell my own instead.”

As Dew More grows – it added three new positions recently – Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship allows the organization to stay focused on making art and ensuring the voices of Baltimore youth are heard. “One thing we realized was that navigating the nonprofit waters financially is a big challenge,” Rodgers says. “Having a fiscal sponsor to be the ship navigating those financial storms is not just a good thing to have but, I feel, is essential.”

Moving forward, Dew More is looking to find more ways for youth to take the lead in telling their stories and changing their communities. Their newest initiative, launching Friday, Nov. 9, at Impact Hub, is “SaltPepperKetchup,” which Rodgers describes as a youth-led project where young people can share “whatever it is they’re most passionate about” in an open, noncompetitive environment.

“It’s a way for people to share poems from all over Baltimore – all the schools that Dew More’s in – but without the aspect of competition,” Wright-Kerr says. “We can sit, talk, and eat together in a space that feels safe and comfortable for them.”

White Boy Magic

Ive written an ode
To the wondrous world
So much fantasy
It might as well be fiction in the first place
But this magic
Be hidden in the plainest of sight
Once Upon a Time
Ugly ass
Mucus lookin ass
Fetus ass
Fluorescent marshmallow ass
Extra strength hefty bag looking ass
Little boy at my school
Loved to call me
His hard rrr like a magical pirate
that somehow
never dies
Little black beard
Not black enough
Or beard enough
But his words
Sinking deeper in my chest
Until pirate ship turns submarine
He’s almost seventeen
400 years to late
I guess?
For me to be offended
Like the ghosts of pirate ships don’t still haunt the mid Atlantic
Haunt the middle of the hallway
Of my
The faculty falls
Captain Hook
And sinker
And sOmehow??
He’s shapeshifted himself into the
In an attempt to sail the seven seas of severing a friendship with your token blackie
Swashbuckling bold bigot boy
Cannot seem to grow up
So I should Neverland on the conclusion not to compare him to Peter Pan
And a pirate at the same time
When he got more magic than the two combined
It’s clear that
Little white boy got
White boy magic
On some tinker bell type tyranny too
He turns Harry Tubman to Harry Potter
His hair is not the only thing
With the special power of not defying gravity
He could suspend himself in the air wayyy before he’ll ever get suspended from my school
Making a prison sentence shrink in the blink of an eye
Becoming invisible to
Corner store employees
Or airport security
Or you know…
The police
somehow apparating to a top university before affirmative action
With the wave of a wand
He can just
Will history away
And I wonder
Why he even bothers to mix with muggles in the first place like
Shouldn’t you be in Narnia?
Shouldn’t you be at Hogwarts or something?
Shouldn’t you be slithering into Slytherin by now?
Committing some
Order of the Phoenix type crimes and whatnot?
Because I mean….
Continuing on as we are,
Ain’t no child like you will be the “boy who lived” for much longer
What is white boy wizardry
To a beating

From a black girl?

Maren Wright-Kerr
(Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate)

Project Spotlight: ‘Charm City’ Documentary Finds Hope in Harsh Reality of Violence and Policing in Baltimore

By Mike Cross-Barnet

Before Freddie Gray’s death, before the Baltimore Uprising, before the consent decree and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and 300 homicides a year, Marilyn Ness wanted to make a documentary about “what was fundamentally broken between police and citizens,” and was looking for the right location for that narrative. She chose Baltimore, and in late 2014 began the three-year process that resulted in Charm City. The film, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and had its official opening at the SNF Parkway in Baltimore. It has been well received both here and nationally, winning attention on the festival circuit and positive reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere.

Marilyn Ness says Strong City’s support was critical in raising the funds needed to produce “Charm City.”

As someone from outside Baltimore, Ness was committed to “making this a truly Baltimore story.” That meant assembling a nearly all-local production team, which started by connecting with Meryam Bouadjemi, a Baltimore documentary filmmaker, as one of her co-producers. It also meant spending week after week exploring neighborhoods and meeting people all over the city, searching for the right way to tell the story. Then, about four months into making the film, Gray died at the hands of the police, and suddenly Baltimore was front-page news around the world. Charm City is not about the Uprising, but it could not possibly avoid it. Ness says she sensed an opportunity – an obligation, even – to finish telling a story that went untold after the national media swooped in to cover the civil unrest, then quickly disappeared.

“The film took on a new meaning,” Ness says. “There were so many people who felt Baltimore had been done wrong on the national stage. … We were there for months before [the Uprising], and we stayed put long after that happened. We felt a responsibility to help rewrite Baltimore’s legacy.” That required looking within, and beyond, the dysfunction and despair that is all many outsiders see.

The moral center of Charm City is “Mr. C” – Clayton Guyton, founder of the Rose Street Community Center in an especially rough stretch of East Baltimore. Through the force of his personality and relentless optimism (“Can’t get tired, can’t give up, things are gonna get better”), Mr. C commands the respect of all and manages to keep a fragile peace in the neighborhood. But it was just as important to Ness to show things from the perspective of the police. Charm City chronicles the experiences of several officers with very different stories, and does so with a sympathetic eye.

“The system is fundamentally broken, but police and community members are caught in the same broken system,” she says. “If you want to change it, how do you engage everyone so they can see and hear – and be seen and heard?”

Ness is determined that the conversation her film started will continue in various forms through a local “Impact Campaign.” To that end, Charm City is being used by the Baltimore Community Mediation Center to facilitate gatherings of police and young people, as was shown in one of the movie’s scenes. The Baltimore Police Department is using the film as part of its cadet training, and the Safe Streets program is incorporating the film in its successful violence-interruption initiatives. Ness is still connected to Mr. C, supporting his efforts to work with youth who are incarcerated.

Ness has been gratified by the film’s reception – first, by the individuals whose lives were portrayed in it; then, by the city of Baltimore; and finally, by a national audience. Charm City, which is distributed by PBS, continues to open in cities around the country and will receive wider exposure when it is broadcast as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series in April.

A native New Yorker whose company, Big Mouth Productions, is based in Brooklyn, Ness is a two-time Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont Award-winning filmmaker. Her previous work as a director and/or producer has delved into social issues such as reproductive health care and war crimes. She is the producer on two films that are currently in the works.

Documentary filmmakers frequently work with fiscal sponsors, which allows them to accept grants and tax-deductible donations without having their own 501(c)3 tax designation. Ness says she chose Strong City as her fiscal sponsor for the same reason that she made sure to hire local camera, light, and sound technicians: “It was important for us to keep the funding in Baltimore as much as possible, and we felt the right thing was to find a local fiscal sponsor to partner with. It’s a critical relationship that enables us to do our work as social justice filmmakers.”

For Ness, the association with Strong City – which has done community-based work in Baltimore for 50 years and has been ramping up its fiscal sponsorship program – was another source of local collaboration. There were other connections: Bouadjemi had a previous relationship with Strong City as her fiscal sponsor; and Fagan Harris, whose organization Baltimore Corps is fiscally sponsored by Strong City, joined the project as an executive producer.

One difference between Charm City and the way some fiction and nonfiction works have portrayed the reality of Baltimore’s streets is that Ness’ film leaves plenty of room for hope, even in the face of a brutal system. Some of what happens in Charm City is absolutely devastating – and yet, she shows that the cycle of violence and heartbreak can be ended. When a group of social workers attended a screening at the SNF Parkway, one of them stood up at the Q&A afterward and said, “my faith [in my work] is renewed.”

Although Charm City does not shy away from the horrors of the streets, “We found that audiences feel hopeful when they leave the theater,” Ness says. “I have a fundamental belief that individual action does matter, that people can make a difference … We have to figure out how to support the Mr. C’s. How do you continue to support people who are fighting the root causes of violence, so the police are needed less?

“As Councilman Brandon Scott says [in the film], we have chosen to use the criminal justice system to deal with everything we can’t figure out how to fix: mental illness, poverty, addiction. We’re shining a light on alternatives to the criminal justice system in the film.”



Gee Gee Spreads Her Wings: From Mentee to Mentor to Leader

Gee Gee Burnside’s day often starts at 4 or 5 a.m. She spends the morning working as a certified nursing assistant, taking care of a roster of patients that includes her own mother. Once that’s done, she turns her attention to her new job as Assistant Program Manager of the 29th Street Community Center. That’s a lot of responsibility for a 20-year-old, but as Gee Gee sees it, she is exactly where she needs to be, doing exactly what she wants to do. “It’s stressful at times, but I always keep going,” she says.

Service is her calling. Not too many years ago, Gee Gee – her first name is Gechell, but everyone calls her by her nickname – was a middle-schooler attending The Club at Collington Square, an after-school enrichment and summer program in East Baltimore. (Strong City took over operations of The Club in 2017.) At The Club, Gee Gee’s leadership qualities soon started to show. Even as she received help with homework from Club staff, Gee Gee in turn began helping the elementary-school kids with their assignments.

Gee Gee credits former Club Director Julia Di Bussolo with giving her the support she wasn’t getting elsewhere, and encouraging her desire to help others. “She’s my favorite person in the world,” Gee Gee says of Ms. Di Bussolo. “She created a home for us there. We were walking around with no shoes on … We learned to write a resume and use computers there. I learned to be a leader.”

The Club became a fixture in Gee Gee’s life. The program serves students through middle school, but after Gee Gee graduated from nearby Collington Square Elementary/Middle, she wasn’t ready to leave. As a high-schooler, Gee Gee spent several summers at The Club participating in the city-funded YouthWorks summer jobs program for teens – and before long she was doing orientations for the other Youth Workers. She also volunteered at The Club to get her required service-learning hours, then continued volunteering once the requirement was completed.

As a volunteer, Gee Gee came to understand and appreciate The Club from a new perspective. She saw her younger self in the children she was able to mentor and support, as she had been mentored and supported. “It gave me motivation,” Gee Gee says of her volunteer experience. “I found it gave me a sense of not forgetting where I came from – seeing that I can make a different in the children there.”

Gee Burnside and Julia Di Bussolo

In her senior year at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, Gee Gee was hired as a teaching assistant by Vanessa Williams, who had become director of The Club, a role she still holds today. Eventually Gee Gee moved up from teaching assistant to teacher, and from there to lead teacher. As a teacher, Gee Gee, who had done many art projects as a Youth Worker, was able to share her love of creativity and art with the young “scholars” of The Club, as Ms. Vanessa always calls them. Gee Gee, who has a knack with computers, even helped Ms. Vanessa work on The Club’s budget. So what if that wasn’t in her job description? It was work that needed to get done, and she was able to help.

Student, Youth Worker, volunteer, teaching assistant, and full-fledged teacher – Gee Gee’s time at The Club included many roles and experiences over nearly half her young life. But one day Ms. Vanessa told her that she couldn’t stay at The Club forever: “It was my sixth year working there, and she said, ‘You have to spread your wings a little bit.”

Leaving The Club was “probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in life,” Gee Gee says. “The love they gave me there, I’ve never experienced anything like it.” But Gee Gee is excited about the new opportunities for leadership she has at the 29th Street Community Center, which provides free and low-cost programming, most of it community-led, to hundreds of adults and children weekly in Harwood and surrounding neighborhoods. “I hated to leave The Club, but my work was needed somewhere else,” she says.

Gee Gee is overseeing a transformation of the Community Center’s after-school into a more structured program that offers a range of activities and emphasizes youth voice. The Community Center was recently awarded a grant from the new Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund that will help make that happen. She will be training three young people (ages 18-24) that the Community Center is hiring with the grant money, and who will be participating in a year-long employment training and leadership program. These changes will allow for expanded programming that will enable the Center to better meet the needs of the dozens of children and youth who come there after school looking for a safe and positive place to be.

“I want to give kids an opportunity to be heard, seen, and taught, and I know that structuring this place will only help,” Gee Gee says. “We need to figure out what these kids want. We want to bring kids in and keep them in.”

And if her long work days helping patients as a nursing assistant and kids as an after-school manager sometimes leave her a bit exhausted, Gee Gee is able to see the bright side of that as well, pointing out: “Doing both things that you love –  it doesn’t get any better than that.”

In the long run, Gee Gee would like to get a degree in early childhood education and eventually open her own after-school program. In her mind, it would be a place where people of all grades and ages – young kids, college students, elderly and disabled people – come together in a spirit of learning and mutual support.

But for now, there is plenty for her to do at the Community Center. There are kids there who Gee Gee says need her help and can benefit from what she’s learned – both the tough experiences and the positive ones.

“When you’re responsible for people’s kids, you treat them as if they’re your own,” she says. “What I learned is that you don’t give up.”

Sharing a Service Adventure, From Baltimore to Peru

By Maggie Switzer (with Erin Thomas)

Upon graduating from college in 2016, I knew I wanted to do a year or two of service. I turned first to AmeriCorps VISTA, because I deeply respected the call to serve in the United States and support the effort to eradicate poverty at home. I joined the VISTA team at Strong City Baltimore in July 2016, and served for a year as a VISTA volunteer with Crossroads Community Food Network, in Takoma Park. Working with Crossroads and Strong City taught me a lot about applying social justice work in real life, community organizing, sustainable development, and basically just getting things done. At the end of my term with VISTA at Strong City, I decided to take my service work even further and join the Peace Corps in Peru as a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education volunteer.

A funny thing happened in January 2018 when I was added to my training cohort’s Facebook group. A woman named Erin Thomas messaged me and said: “Hey! We’re in the same cohort again!” Small world. Erin and I had been in the same VISTA cohort at Strong City, where we had seen each other about once a month for our Professional Development Meetings (PDMs). We both knew it was an interesting coincidence that we spent a year together as VISTA volunteers in the same cohort, and would be in the same Peace Corps cohort for two years. Albeit different programs: Erin is a Community Economic Development volunteer, which speaks to her experience at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Baltimore, working in financial literacy with refugee populations. I knew she was interested in Peace Corps, but never got the chance to talk to her about it. However, as fate will have it…

We left for Peru in March 2018 (fittingly, we sat next to each other on the plane to Peru) and completed three months of training on June 7, 2018. Shortly after swearing in as an official Peace Corps volunteer, I arrived in my site, El Parco, in Amazonas, the hot, humid high jungle region of Peru on the border with Ecuador. Erin was sent to Chacas, in Ancash, the colder, mountainous region north of Lima. Throughout training, we both realized the similarities between the Strong City VISTA program training and Peace Corps training and how effective both must be. For example, I remember doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis with the VISTA cohort members, and in Peace Corps we learned to do a FODA analysis: Fortalezas, Opportunidades, Debilidades, Amenazas, within our respective communities.

We recently completed four months of our 27-month service. My time has consisted of teaching many hand-washing lessons/classes to improve household hygiene practices. I enjoy very much working with my Centro de Salud (local health center) to promote safe drinking water and using my VISTA experience to talk about nutrition and other preventative health practices. I also installed a chlorination system so we can become one step closer to safe drinking water!

Working with VISTA gave us capacity building, persistence, flexibility and sustainable development skills that will serve us well in Peace Corps. We are both very grateful for the experience with Strong City that has propelled us to be better-equipped Peace Corps volunteers and global citizens.