Sacrificial Poets – Teaching Youth how to Empower Themselves

By Kevin Grandos-Aguilar

In an age dominated by invisible marketing tricks, political puppeteers and capitalistic propaganda, silence is akin to surrender. There are only a few who give voice to social injustice, but they also speak of race and gender; of prejudice and laws; of social class and political status – challenging all the ideas by which we live every day. By this definition, some would call them anarchists, others idealists; in reality, they are simply poets.

More specifically, the Sacrificial Poets – the award-winning, nonprofit group of spoken word poets from North Carolina – who, according to their website, seek to “use the spoken and written word to activate, nurture and amplify youth voices through creative expression, self-exploration and the cultivation of safe spaces.” As with traditional spoken word poetry, they do not seek to empower youth, but instead teach youth how to empower themselves.

The Sacrificial Poets were first established in 2005 at UNC Chapel Hill, originally under the name Chapel Hill Slam Team. The group of eight later changed their name after the tragic murder of one of their founding members, Irina Yarmolenko, in May, 2008. Because the ‘sacrificial poet’ in a poetry slam is the one who first touches the stage and warms up the audience for the competition, Yarmolenko metaphorically became the ultimate sacrificial poet, having given a lot of her time and energy to the success of the team. To her fellow members, her tragically short life has become the sacrificial poem, inspiring all those around her.

Poetry has always offered a strong sense of inspiration as part of its allure. It actually predates literacy as a form of art, as it was used to memorize oral history, stories and laws. The beats and patterns of poetry facilitated this process, allowing those who learned these poems to mimic the pattern when passing the information to others. Modern slam poetry has roots in dub poetry, hip-hop and Jamaican toasting, having transformed from a combination of spoken word with rhymes and reggae beats. Some elements in spoken word poetry even resemble gospel music, with its emphasis on the interactive call-and-response experience between speaker and listener. In the same way an audience at a liturgy would respond to the speaker with an “Amen,” poetry audiences provide feedback in the form of snaps and “Mmm-mmm’s.”

As a series of poets or teams hit the stage successively to narrate their pieces, the audience’s feedback becomes an essential element in the performance. Not only do audience members judge and rate the poets, they also become a part of the recited piece, allowing the speaker to connect more deeply with the listeners. In that way, a safe space is created where the poet, like the preacher, establishes a welcoming environment where ideas can manifest in countless ways. This is the power of poetry and this is what the Sacrificial Poets specialize in: Teaching youth how to tap into this ability.

As the Artistic Director of the Sacrificial Poets, National Slam Poet Kane Smego is responsible for maintaining and operating the group’s YouTH ink curriculum. It is designed to teach youth how to use their differences and diversity as a strength. This is achieved through the workshops they hold in middle schools, high schools and colleges, where students are asked to write poems about anything they’d like and are then asked to share these poems with the class if so inclined.

In these workshops, ‘safe spaces’ are important because students can freely express themselves without fear of judgment, persecution or humiliation, as it’s all about understanding each other. The Sacrificial Poets educate these kids and young adults in understanding their differences and diversity to promote a more cohesive future. “All the people who are the leaders now, who are in power now, who are the doctors and the politicians and the lawyers,” Smego says, “those will be the people who are being born now, who are in middle school now, who are in high school now. We believe that our calling is to work with that young generation, to help them as they’re just beginning to blossom.”

The Sacrificial Poets believe that youth is the most marginalized of all demographics – that they are the ones whose voices most often go unheard. They do not have the power to make most of their own decisions and their interests are often not considered by those in control. That’s especially true in our culture, where commercialization is targeted at ‘brain-washed’ teens who fit into neat marketing categories defined by stereotypes in modern society. Will McInerney, executive director of the Sacrificial Poets, says the group aims to provide youth with the tools to let their authentic voices be heard. “One of the things that we try to do in this organization is to create a really intentional environment, where young people can empower themselves through their own story, with their own voice,” he says. “If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will.”

One of the most important things about the process is self-disclosure. On-stage, poets reveal a lot about themselves, who they are and what they believe, echoing the ‘safe zones’ the Sacrificial Poets’ workshops encourage. This was effectively demonstrated by youth poets in UNC-Charlotte’s Cone Center at an after-hours event during a presentation directed by the Sacrificial Poets in October, 2013.

Celeste McCants shared a piece about her internal struggles with her Christian faith. Her poem outlined a conversation in her head, effectively revealing a lot about herself in the process. Another poet, Jasmine Farmer, revealed her thoughts on a YouTube video that stereotyped blacks. According to Farmer, the video was a parody of Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” and the video’s creator was a Caucasian male that claimed to “Be’s with the blacks.” But Farmer questioned his understanding of black oppression and the battles they fought for equality – she assures the audience that this man does not know what it’s like to be with the blacks.

According to Farmer, the teaching artist with the Sacrificial Poets, the process of speaking your thoughts and feelings out loud is a healing process like no other. “Sometimes, things don’t become real until you say them, and you think, ‘Wow, this happened to me,’” she says. “Being able to get that weight off your shoulders allows you to move on and help other people with their emotions.” Farmer, who is also the group’s youth mentor at only 19 years old, also talked about poetry in the form of a natural conversation. She says that they’re very similar because the audience gives feedback and you can feel the community of people in the room supporting you. Much like a room full of sports fanatics or music fans, the room exploded with snaps of approval when Farmer walked off-stage after her piece.

“It’s hard, no one gets used to telling their deepest darkest secrets, but the healing that comes from that is well worth it,” says Farmer. Some might find it difficult to share personal stories this openly, but the idea is that if others in the audience have similar experiences, bonds will be made and fears overcome.

Poetry doesn’t always have to be a sad or depressing thing, however. McInerney performed an excellent piece on the complications involving his feet that turned a morbid moment into a comedic situation. “Humor has always been really hard for me,” admits McInerney, “I have a lot of respect for comedy and comedians. It’s strategic; it’s creative; it’s a manipulation of words to achieve a desired goal. In poetry, a lot of times, we’re trying to get you to see something in a different light.”

In his poem, McInerney analyzes the difficulties of living with abnormally large feet in sarcastic situations through humor, but also reveals it got so bad that the only solution was an experimental surgery that only had a 50 percent success rate – and if it failed, he would be unable to walk again. “With my feet, they’re a big part of my life because of the complexities going on there,” he says. “The idea came from the whole ‘9’ thing, she [the doctor] said I was a 9 out of 10 – that’s how bad it was.” McInerney expresses gratitude for the ability to walk in his poem, despite all the difficulties he faces, but he ends his poem with more humor – “She did say I was a 9 out of 10, after all.”

To the Sacrificial Poets, spoken and written word is more than just a powerful tool – it’s a way of life. It gives youth the power to stand up and speak up. It demands attention and is fearless in bringing forth matters of race, gender, social status, sexual orientation, religion and love. It lets youth put themselves out there, exposed for all to see, and in turn offers the opportunity to grow stronger after every experience. CJ Suitt, the youth outreach coordinator and co-author of the YouTH ink curriculum, put it best: “Spoken word does not happen in a vacuum. We bring it to each other, sitting down with it and letting someone else hear it, getting feedback from the folks you love and respect. That’s what it’s all about – community.”

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