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Our words matter. So what’s the beef about?



Victor Kakulu
(Photo: Victor Kakulu)

Youth from the Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) SummerWorks Program recently displayed their talents, presenting a performance and art showcase that addressed hard-hitting themes like unemployment, substance abuse, violence and peer pressure.

The “Lyrical Minded 617: Get Your Mind Right!” showcase was presented on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009, by ABCD’s South End Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP) in association with MassHousing, and hosted by Bryonn Bain of New York’s Blackout Arts Collective.

According to Bain, the show’s message was powered by the authentic voices of its young participants.

“All of these kids are already talented,” said Bain. “I just had the opportunity to help them focus their voices and talents into making these powerful PSAs and performances tonight.”

The showcase featured performances of spoken word poetry, dance and hip-hop, as well as five public service announcements targeted at addressing various issues facing young people and the tough choices they are often forced to make.

All of the show’s content, from the poems to the PSAs, was created directly by the youth. SNAP Director Shilo Kuriakose, who shared executive producing duties with Bain, stressed the importance of allowing the kids to plead their own case.

“The kids wrote everything,” she said. “They deal with these issues everyday. It was very important [that] they have the opportunity to not only speak about the problems, but [to speak] to them as well. Their problems, their solutions.”

ABCD Executive Vice President John J. Drew echoed Kuriakose’s statements.

“How many youngsters believe that their voices can be heard?” asked Drew, a Charlestown native who said he has been with the citywide antipoverty agency for 38 years. “Sometimes speaking out is talking about hurt. It is a thing of terrible importance.”

In one piece, a young girl narrated her demise as a direct result of choosing a path of gang violence. The faces of some audience members revealed its reflection of a reality close to home.

At the program’s end, hip-hop music blared as the performers engaged in an impromptu session of “krumping,” a high-powered and expressive dance style popularized on the West Coast and marked by sharp, jerking movements.

One song in particular — “Ante-Up,” the 2001 hit single from Brooklyn hip-hop duo M.O.P. — set the stage for an enthusiastic set by three young performers.

Fifteen-year-old dancers Chris Parker, Renic Franklin and Traiquan Stroud each took part in the PSAs. They said they use their passion for performance and dance to counter issues of drugs and gang violence.

“The program allows me the confidence to show my talent as a dancer as well as speak in front of people,” said Franklin. “I have a lot going for me because of the program, and I love them for that.”

Surprisingly, the song “Ante Up,” which includes strong lyrical content depicting acts of armed robbery, was played unedited from beginning to end, with no immediate complaints arising from those in attendance. Host Bain was quick to note that the same songs, scenarios and strong language are waiting for young participants on the street and, for some, in their homes.

On top of that, he added, there’s no edited version of the issues they face.

“I understand the feeling of surprise people get when they see these kids, but honestly, we have to stop assuming the worst when it comes to our youth,” said Bain. “When you can assume that they’re brilliant, assume that they’re geniuses and ask them what’s on their mind and what they’d like to talk about, you get so much more out of them.”

As young dancer Stroud sees it, that’s precisely what the SNAP showcase offers.

“I want to be the greatest when I grow up,” said Stroud, who performs ballet as well as krump. “This program lets me express how I’m feeling through dance. I get angry at times like anybody else, but the program gives me a way to release how I’m feeling.”

ABCD SummerWorks is a jobs, education and mentoring program serving low-income, at-risk youth from Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods between the ages of 14 and 21.

It provides at-risk young people with employment and skill-development opportunities, works with the Boston Public Schools to lower dropout rates, and educates participants about topics like career advancement, financial matters and community building.

This year, federal stimulus funds made it possible for ABCD to employ 2,200 young people through the SummerWorks program in a variety of settings, ranging from day care facilities and summer camps to colleges and hospitals.

The stimulus dollars doubled their capacity — the program served 1,100 kids last year. But resources remain in high demand, according to ABCD; they received over 4,000 SummerWorks applications this year.

“We must invest in our kids early,” said ABCD’s Drew. “Yes, it’s a lot of money. But more importantly, it’s one hell of an investment.”