Voices of Youth: Detroit's Citywide Poets teens share feelings on poetry, BLM protests, and COVID-19

Tianna Jones has certainly had a lot on her mind since COVID-19 turned life in Michigan upside down this year.

Like many of us, the social isolation of staying at home has been challenging for the 17-year-old Redford resident. She's also concerned for her father who's considered high risk for the coronavirus due to a history of heart issues. Beyond that, Jones is distressed by the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans as a result of police-related violence, which have sparked nationwide protests.

"[At first] I was happy that I didn't have to go to school, but then as time went on it was so hard," she says. "First we were worried about a virus, and now we have to worry about police brutality." 

Fortunately, Jones, who's a poet, has found some solace in writing.

"Some of my favorite poems I've written during this time," she says. "Right now, It's very therapeutic." 

In addition to her own writing, Jones also appreciates the opportunity she's had during this time to stay connected with other young writers through a Detroit-based group called Citywide Poets

A division of the InsideOut Literary Arts program, Citywide Poets is an award-winning program geared toward mentoring and supporting young Metro Detroit artists. The project puts together workshops that are supervised by professional writers. The workshops are open not just to young poets but to aspiring writers of all kinds and other creatives too.

"I like to think of it as a community across numerous sites within the city," says Citywide Poets Coordinator Justin Rogers. "Not only are you workshopping with other young creatives in your community, you also have a chance to workshop with youth in other communities across Michigan."

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, in-person workshops aren't happening right now, but the program has continued in the virtual realm. 

When the pandemic first hit, Citywide Poets started off by sharing prompts and poems over Instagram. Then from April 30 to May 7, the organization really stepped out with a digital version of their Louder Than a Bomb Poetry Festival featuring seven days of online workshops and open mics. Since then, Citywide Poets has been holding online workshops and Saturday Share virtual open mics.

The organization's transition to digital workshops and events has been fairly easy, according to Rogers. Despite a bit of Justin Rogers screen burnout from online platforms and the emotional stress of COVID-19, Rogers is proud to say members of the group have been meeting regularly since May.

"Citywide Poets is important, especially right now, because we offer a supportive and emotionally safe community," says Rogers. "We deliver this by listening to our students, engaging students in social-emotional learning practices, and creating opportunities to connect with other youth experiences."

Citywide Poets also encourage students who participate in their programming to make the world a better place for themselves and those around them. To that end, the group's staff have actively been sharing relevant information and history with its youth to help them understand social movements like Black Lives Matters that have become prominent in recent months.

For Katja Rowan, a Hamtramck-based high school student, participating in Citywide Poets events has been a real lifeline over the last few months. 

"During quarantine, Citywide Poets reminded me that people are still out there even though it can feel isolated," she says.

Along with Tianna Jones, Rowan is part of Citywide Poets' new Performance Troupe. Youth in the ensemble came together after being selected through a video submission contest. 

While the pandemic has been a little lonely, Rowan has appreciated the break it's given her from school and extracurricular activities like orchestra and teaching Taekwondo. 

Some of her free time has been spent writing. At the moment, she's working on a screenplay for a short movie about life during COVID-19 that she hopes to film with her brother's help. Composing poetry about the pandemic, however, has been more difficult, due to the deeply personal nature of the medium. But she hopes to revisit the topic more thoroughly when she has more distance from the crisis.

"For the most part writing has felt very heavy, because it deals with a lot of things that we're going through," she says. "It's right there in your own head, and right now things are so uncertain, a family member might go to the store and pass away. It's crazy."

During the last few weeks, Rowan has really wanted to participate in Black Lives Matters protests, which have drawn millions of people around the country into the streets since George Floyd's death on Memorial Day. But she's been staying home because her family recently experienced symptoms similar to COVID-19.

"I think we had COVID. We all got very sick in March, and I had a lot of chest pain for two months," she says. "I haven't lost anyone, thankfully, and I'm hoping it stays that way."

Thankfully Symone Jones, another member of the Citywide Poets Performance Troupe hasn't been sick, but the last few months have been anything but normal for her.

Although the 18-year-old recently graduated from Romulus High, she wasn't able to have a graduation ceremony or celebration due to social distancing protocols. And since she doesn't have a job, she's been stuck by herself in her Inkster home while the rest of her family has been out working. 

That's left her feeling a little stir-crazy, but one upside of this is that her friends are communicating with her a lot more. A good deal of her time these days is spent flipping through books and working on her own writing. While she has been doing some poetry, though, finding inspiration has been an uphill battle.  

"It's actually been really difficult because I feed off other people's energy, when I write poetry," she says. "and I don't ever have that energy when we're doing workshops over Zoom." 

Online organizing, however, is something that has been coming pretty easily to Symone Jones. She's particularly passionate about raising awareness about the death of Breonna Taylor. A 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician, Taylor was killed by Louisville police, who had a no-knock search warrant, during an early morning raid on her apartment.

While Jones knows people in her own life who strongly oppose Black Lives Matter, she's dedicated to clearing up what she sees as misconceptions about the movement.  

"They see it as this racist thing," she says. "They keep comparing it to the KKK. If you really researched it, you would know that this is not a movement that's meant to hurt anybody. This is to help people who are dying out there."

While Symone Jones has been doing most of her activism remotely. Detroiter Jae'lah Glenn who's also a member of the performance troupe, has participated in several Black Lives Matters protests in her hometown. Like many of her Citywide Poets friends, Glenn has been taking part in the organization’s online workshops. But she finds the new reality brought about by the pandemic has sapped much of her interest in poetry, and staying at home has been a challenge. 

"It's hard for me to socially distance while there are protests going on," says Glenn. "I feel like I need to be there. So, what I've been doing is to take it one day at a time and just balance the trauma I'm experiencing from COVID and also Black death."

While participating in the Black Lives Matters protests has been an empowering experience, the crisis of the last few months has also been a time of sobering reflection.

"COVID has really put into place the way that a lot of people don't really care about themselves or the well-being of others," says Glenn. "It also lets me be still, but it's really hard for me to be in my head with everything that's going on." 

Glenn wants to go to film school after she graduates. Travel and a move to either New York City or Los Angeles also figure prominently in her plans. But the disruption of the pandemic makes it hard for her to discern exactly how she'll be able to make those goals a reality. 

As for Rowan, when it comes to her future, she hopes to get a degree in a scientific field where she can be of service to others while doing art on the side. On a collective level, she feels there's a real need for health care and a more equal distribution of wealth to help essential workers and others who may be struggling to pay their bills. 

"It's just obvious the work is cut out for us," says Rowan. "The leaders and the rich are not doing what they should be doing. I would like to see a lot of change in that area as we come out of the pandemic." 
Symone Jones is enrolled at Wayne County Community College and expects to be doing her coursework online for some time. 

"I wish things could go back the way they were in February, but I know that probably won't be the case," she says. "Like how there's a max occupancy for stores, I think that might stay. People are going to be a lot more cautious.”

Focusing on the near future, Tianna Jones thinks her school may reopen for physical classes this fall, and she's a little on edge about how safe that may be for herself and fellow students.

When it comes to bigger concerns like police-community relations or the impact of COVID on society, the 17-year-old feels those issues are connected to deeper patterns like the long history of racism in the United States, problems she and others of her generation are still coming to terms with. 

"A lot of people look to us and ask: 'What should we do?'" she says. "For me, I don't know. We're trying the best we can to do what we think will have the greatest outcome for all of us."

Voices of Youth is a series that captures the youth perspective and narrative during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.