Power to the Poetsby Knox Robinson
When Jesús González is finished giving an interview, he looks directly at you and says, “Excuse me, I have to go” with the affected formality of a self-styled leader, and as he rises from the table one is left with the sudden and somewhat humorous impression of what it must be like to survive one of Fidel Castro’s notoriously airless three-hour question and answer-answer-answers. This feeling does not arrive solely from the way Jesús punctuates his speech with phrases like “fight for social justice in our communities” and “Everybody is Power,” or the way he occasionally personalizes such a struggle; nor does it come directly from watching him demand a menthol cigarette from someone in the room where he’s just finished speaking. Nor does it emanate from the curious way he makes an earnest Latina organizer perhaps several years his senior nervously mash up her college Spanish to explain to him that she’s only eating Dominican Chinese takeout chicken out of celosa, when she means to say codicia or maybe avaricia; after all, hardworking young activists have to eat. It sure as hell doesn’t come from his speaking Spanish, because it’s not even clear if he does; and anyway when he says his name is “Jee-zus” and not “Hey, Zeus,” he does it in such a way as to somehow wash out your low-level expectations as to who you think he must be. Jesús González reminds you of Fidel because his stance suggests a man who wants to fuck with you or anyone else who might have preconceived notions as to the kind of life he must lead as a 16-year-old young man from Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Jesús and his comrades belong to the Youth Power Project (YPP) of Make the Road by Walking, a social justice organization that works for economic, environmental, and workplace fairness for community residents in Bushwick. Languishing next to rapidly gentrifying Buzzburg, Bushwick is a black and brown low-income neighborhood in which 40 percent of the people survive below the poverty line; its per capita income of $7,000 a year is half of the city’s average. Make the Road began organizing in 1997 to bring democracy and opportunity to Bushwick’s residents; today the collective is led by 500 decision-making members and fights on many fronts, ranging from civil rights and anti-discrimination initiatives to increased bilingual social services to direct action campaigns against abuses toward workers in local sweatshops. The Youth Power Project in particular has roughly 30 members between the ages of 10 and 19, who meet weekly to focus on issues like lack of funding for after-school programs, unlawful police harassment, and racial profiling of Bushwick’s black and Latino youth.
“In this neighborhood we’re stereotyped as being truants and they have rash ways of dealing with truants,” explains Joanna Marie “Jo-Jo” Dilan. Jo-Jo and other members of the YPP say that N.Y.P.D. truancy patrols show a consistent and systematic disregard for protocol and sensitivity when dealing with Bushwick’s young residents. Earlier this year the YPP interviewed a group of young people in the neighborhood and found that 33 percent of them said the police did not tell them why they were being stopped, while 40 percent reported being yelled at or cursed at by the officers who stopped them. The group then presented these findings and their complaints at a press conference in front of the 83rd Precinct, and subsequently arranged to have a training session with truancy officers this past fall.
The YPP’s political moves are reported in the World on the Street, a newspaper that juxtaposes articles on Vieques and the statistically dense “Legal Challenges Facing Young People” with book reviews and “The Zero Game,” a complicated divination device that uses ones and zeros to analyze a lover interest. The paper also publishes the poetry that illuminates the emotional core of the group’s commitment to social change. Many of these poems come out of the weekly workshops held at Make the Road’s offices at 301 Grove Street, in which participants diligently write and revise their creations with help from well-known poet Willie Perdomo, whose own schizophrenic “Nigger-Reecan Blues” was among the most notable works to emerge from the city’s spoken incendiary word scene of the ’90s.
“Last week we had the kids write a poem in which they could be anything they wanted to for 24 hours,” says Jo-Jo, who writes as well as helps out with a group of younger poets. “What would they be? Why would they be that? What would they do with that 24 hours?” One boy wrote that he would choose to be the sky, so that he could be something people could look forward to. “When that’s coming from the mouth of a 10-year-old, it’s amazing,” Jo-Jo says. “It’s about trying to find out what’s inside of them.”
“It’s personal poetry, understand? But it’s not all about love,” interrupts Jesús, who says he doesn’t write poetry but “understands it.” “I’m pretty sure Willie will ask you to write a poem about what’s going down in your neighborhood, like, ‘What do you think about this?’ because that helps people be politically aware.”
Luis Reyes has seen his work increase the awareness of people in the community. “I’m not really good at ‘outreach,’ like telling people ‘we gotta do this, we gotta do that, you gotta sign up and help us,” says Reyes, 18. “But I wrote a poem called ‘Bushwick Everyday’ in which I talked about potholes and rat infestation and the poverty you see [here]. I had somebody come up to me and say, ‘Woah, I was walking down a road and I saw exactly what you wrote about, and I didn’t notice it until I read about it.”
Both in and outside of workshops, writers of the YPP continue to explore the ways in which poetry finds a public presence. The groups say they find many of their new members during poetry readings in a local park. “The youth are the future, so that’s what we have to focus on,” says Yesenia Martínez. As such, rhetorical questions show up in their work, like “How would you change your life? If you could go back to a certain point in your life, what would you change?” Ysenia says that such questions prompt eager responses from her peers.
“You realize that you grow up with a group of kids and when you look back you wonder what happened to them,” adds Jo-Jo. “They took the door that was right there in front of them, selling drugs, using drugs. And once they fall in that void, they’re trapped.”
Jesús chimes in to say he calls this “the government’s trap.”
“A lot of us make it out but a lot of us don’t,” continues Jo-Jo. “You look back and you see your best friend from when you were younger and he’s in handcuffs or he’s dead from an OD, or he got shot hustling. It hurts, you know what I mean? And our poetry reflects that.”
Like most 16-year-olds, Jesús González has the world figured out, at least from where he stands. But sooner or later he’ll get hip to an idea that some of his comrades in the Youth Power Project are already onto: “personal poetry” can be about love and still reflect a political awareness, when that poetry re-imagines what life can be. If you listen right, poems about either potholes or the sky are both about seeing where you’re heading.
KNOX ROBINSON is an editor-at-large at The Fader and a mentor at Youth Speaks.