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These young poets show there’s more to Flint than a water crisis

At a low point in the summer of 2013, Flint student Razjea Bridges turned to poetry.

“I kind of shut out everybody all throughout that year. Poetry was kind of the one thing that I relied on to make me feel better,” she said.

It was her second year with Raise It Up!, a youth arts organization based in Flint, where she performed on a slam team with other young poets from the city. Going to their weekly practice, and talking to Raise It Up! co-founder Natasha Thomas-Jackson, helped her pull through what she said was one of the most difficult seasons of her life. “Being with the poets on the team, being with Natasha and having that encouraging, positive spirit really did save my life,” she said.

Bridges, who now attends Eastern Michigan University, joined four other young poets with Raise It Up! and tap dancer Leilani Clay to perform on Feb. 28 at #JusticeForFlint, an event that showcased a range of voices from a city known chiefly, at the moment, for its water crisis. These poets say the water is merely the latest in a string of events that have brought negative press to Flint, overshadowing the innovative artists and activists that live and work there every day.

I asked them how poetry — and in particular, poetry by young people — could help provide a more nuanced portrait of Flint. Here’s what they said.

Danielle Horton, age 19

Poetry is a positive outlet. The arts in general [are] a positive outlet, and it is important to have that escape. It is important for anyone to have that kind of escape but especially in Flint. There is so much talent here. All across the borders, from sports to the arts, to the academics, there is so much power here in the city of Flint.

“Poetry is an amazing art form. It is able to tell the ugliest stories so beautifully. And I love it. It’s what heals me and I know that it can help heal my city.” — Danielle Horton, 19But that’s not what the news says. That’s not what you hear when you go out of town. No, when you go out of town people pity you. They have all of these negative connotations of Flint and they don’t even know us. Or maybe they’ve had one bad experience and they’re just holding on to that bad experience. And if society is looking down on us, we look down on ourselves. When we don’t have something we start to believe that we don’t deserve it, but the arts … by having an outlet like poetry, you are able to reclaim everything and say “Yes, I do deserve this.” It gives hope. And even hope the size of a mustard seed is powerful. We are a resilient city. This water crisis is not going to get us down. Poetry is an amazing art form. It is able to tell the ugliest stories so beautifully. And I love it. It’s what heals me and I know that it can help heal my city.

Razjea Bridges, 19

Flint has been known for very few things. For GM, the auto industry that failed a few years ago, [for] being a murder capital* a few years ago, and now it’s known for this water crisis. All of those things are really negative things, and the poets, the artists, the community activists and the teachers of the city, they don’t want to promote that negativity anymore.

My grandmother moved to Flint from the South for work. Flint was a place people wanted to be in. Poetry and art is that thing that will change that negative mindset that people have about the city. That’s another thing a lot of people don’t know about Flint right now, is [that] a lot of people in Flint are extremely talented. That’s how I got to learn more about my own city, through poetry. [Art] is how Flint is going to get through all the crappy stuff it’s been through in the past few years. Poetry is just a way to put together words that make people feel better. It’s been a therapy for me. I’d like to view poetry as being the same way for other people, when I perform it and when I write it.

Natasha Thomas-Jackson, co-founder and executive director of Raise it Up!, and Nate Marshall. Photo by Derico A. Cooper

Natasha Thomas-Jackson, co-founder and executive director of Raise it Up!, and Nate Marshall. Photo by Derico A. Cooper

Harvey, age 21

It’s so beautiful, the way youth get a voice with Raise it Up! It’s an opportunity to have a voice about what’s going on, what’s happening with them. So often, young people are looked over, their experiences are looked over, because it’s like you’re a kid, you don’t know anything about this world. But really if you take time to stop and listen, kids have so much wisdom. Young people really do. It’s not bogged down by the harsh experiences of this world. As you get older you learn more things, but kids have a truth to them that I think with Raise it Up! and working with the poetry team, that really gets brought out.

Poetry helps us talk about what’s going on in Flint because a lot of news is coming from outside of Flint, looking at it from outside perspective, even though people are coming to Flint to say things, they haven’t lived here before the water crisis. They haven’t experienced Flint before the attention. And so poetry coming from Flint poets, it comes pre-wrapped in the Flint experience and what it means to be from Flint.

Destiny Monet, age 18

Poetry matters everywhere. Specifically, spoken word matters everywhere, and especially in places like Flint where people are being looked over and ignored. We need poetry here because it is a platform for our pain and the injustices we witness every day, whether it’s here in Flint or all over the world. Poetry is a way to let the world know that we are here and we aren’t going anywhere. [It’s] a way to provide knowledge to the unknowing in hopes that the more we educate ourselves on the issues, the more we can collectively come up with some solutions.

Isan Francis, age 16

I think we’ve been able to build something because of shared experiences and shared beliefs and shared art forms and the ability to put our minds together. Art is really important right now for getting to the bottom of the situation and getting to people feel about it and elevating it to a national level. I think #JusticeForFlint was really important, it was a really important stage for us to do that.

You can watch, listen to or read two performances by the group below.

Flint

Pay for your poison
the girls and the boys and
the city can’t drink
lead altering the way we think
futures gone in a blink…

A mother who has children dying in her arms. Her name is Flint. She has lived a long and tiring life.

Her children, sucking all of the nutrients out of her, she is wearing thin.

But the streets got her back. They are what define her. What makes her whole.

She was young once.

Lively, ambitious, booming… she was beautiful. Everyone loved her. Clung to her like flock. She had everything.

Money, resources, people who worked for her. And then, she lost it all.

A good-bye kiss.

Policy always tried to pimp her out.

Misuse and abuse her. But she just cracks a smile at ‘em.

Cause she’s raising warriors.

We’ve got her streets running through our veins.

When you’re shaped from concrete and tar you learn to bury your feet.
The dirt you stand in becomes your only friend when the city doesn’t love you.

Living in Flint is being surrounded by shackles and ignoring the restriction.

Just to carry on.

Where I come from, politicians fill their pockets.

Work from the lens of dollar signs.
See currency before human life.
Blinded by green faces.

Racist.

Where I come from the stretch of Saginaw Street is 60% black.

60% tar.

60% stuck.

Somebody show me the blueprint for uprooting this city’s corroded bloodline.

I wonder how Snyder is spending his Sunday? While we stand in solidarity against the poisoning of my people, he relaxes in his Ann Arbor home passing bills for the exact crime he committed in Flint.

I heard her holler as HOMEBOY hung her out to dry, A drained cry. Never dialyzed the river that is her blood line…got mucked up

I know all good things must come to an end but must the fall from glory be into an abyss?

Everything used to revolve around her. There was nothing she couldn’t provide. Now, the only thing she’s good for is a daily reminder of what a city should fear becoming.

Her streets are deserted, her buildings stand still in time trying to hold on…as someone’s idea of yesteryear,

The feeble attempts made to cover up her damaged frame seep into a path of cobblestone that was laid to take us straight to the promised land.

The best way to screw a city:
From behind, blinded.
Manipulate their money and violate their water.

Forcing us to drink the Kool-Aid they’ve made and they never really could make Kool-Aid right.

Never enough sugar,

Always too much lead.

Pay for your poison
the girls and the boys and
the city can’t drink
lead altering the way we think
futures gone in a blink…

The light that is a promise for change gets dimmer with every breaking news report. What happens when all the celebrities have driven through , donated money, bottled water and passed out filters to her people!?

SCREW A FILTER,
IT’S A RUSE,
AIN’T IT 1 HOW THEY ALWAYS SEEM TO FILTER OUT THE TRUTH?

We shine best in dark places
in tight spaces,
we make our home.
Flintstones
Where I’m from….
Yabadabadoo is a negro spiritual.

We are angrily asking questions, improperly being poisoned, strategically murdered off as lead muffles our voices.

When today becomes yesterday and there is no more Janelle Monae, Jasmine Sullivan…

Where will our water be?

Pay for your poison
the girls and the boys and
the city can’t drink
lead altering the way we think
futures gone in a blink…

More blocks than kindergarten,
More corners than hexagons,
A city where tired is a lifestyle,
Where rest is a blunt meeting lips between work shifts.

Flint.

If I ain’t got it today…
Trust I’mma have it tomorrow,
Hard work,
Tough skin,
1 church,
2 liquor stores
1 school book,
2 jails cells,
Living here is tossed body overboard,
Sacrificing,
It is being Jonah and knowing the whale’s belly,
Flourishing in the dark.

We’ve trained our eyes to still embrace light.
Remember light.

We are that light.

He gave us 4 pens and 4 notebooks and said feed a hundred thousand,
So, we write.

Reacting to what we know as our essence,
Putting our passion on paper and showcasing our expression,
You ain’t from the Fli?
You ain’t familiar with famine,
The 810 in my pulse is all I need to keep standing.

The Fli-raq blues finally got to you, eh?
You just living life surprised they ain’t shot at you, eh?
Or shot it your way?
You’re living cause the shot misplaced,
Condom bust or trigger bang,
They’re both honest mistakes.

Bringing a cold front to where passion and goals meet,
My city engaged to hustle,
Don’t come here with cold feet,
I represent the belly of the beast…

Forget what you heard about it,

Just know Flint made me.

She Said Yes

She said yes,
Lucas wants to play with Mariana’s toy car,
She said yes,
Ashlynn wants to talk about her recent family issues with Tiara at 4AM,
She said yes,
Tasha’s boyfriend asked for her last $20 last week,
She said yes,
She forgot what the word “no” tastes like, His piercing eyes nail her to the cross every time she even looks like she’s thinking about leaving him,
May 8th:
He beats the crap out of her,
May 9:
He takes her out to dinner at a nice restaurant,
May 10:
She cries on the phone to her sister
May 11:
He proposes to her in front of the world,
She said yes.

Someone asks a favor,
I don’t have time,
The word “No” sits in a chain-rusted box at the bottom of the Pacific,
I can’t swim.
So I find myself drowning in sharing more than I care to give.

This society raises “only speak when spoken to” women,
And silence is now a feminine trait with a chastity belt,
Silence locks women to respectability the same way “yes” does,

So I said nothing,
And his hands became rusted crowbar prying open the legs of my 1997 antique BMW.

I said nothing and his words became razor blade to my medulla oblongata.

I said nothing and watched the hands that once held me, transform into iron fists.

If we don’t say “no” they will attempt to ruin us and say that we wanted it,

We are allowed to say “no”,
Even if it’s once a day,
We must practice.

Women feel an unwarranted obligation to constantly give,
Running ourselves dry of favors,
Agreements,
Of energy.

There are no more yeses to share,
We are bitter,
Selfish,
Prude,
Crabby,
We’ve taught our daughters to leave themselves on the shelf when approaching a culture sealed in patriarchy,

Morgan wants to use Kate’s blue crayon,
She doesn’t know that the blue one is Kate’s favorite,
She said “no.”

Lauren asks Meeka for a piece of gum,
She said “no.”

Caitlyn Jenner was given the name Bruce.
She said “no.”

This is not another poem to load women with all the responsibility,
But we all know that being woman is double standard is being held accountable,
being taken advantage of and remaining lady-like,

Ladies…

We have a divine right to affirm no without explanation.

No
You can’t have my teddy grams, No
You can’t have my secrets, No
You can’t have my body, No
You can’t have my time, No
You can’t have my home, No
You can’t have have my value, No

Too long it took me to understand my self-worth,
So I won’t apologize for thinking of self first.

I called my four year old sister Kyra into the room to assure her that she doesn’t always have to share,
That yes isn’t something people are entitled to,
I told her that saying “no” is okay sometimes, The bass in her chuckle sent chills down my spine as I tried to beat it into her head that saying “no” as a girl is not a joke.

I said, “Baby girl, do you understand that you don’t always have to say yes?”

She said “yes.”

*Editor’s note: Flint has been named the most dangerous city in America due to its violent crime rate.

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