May 28, 2015 / 10:15 AM / 4 years ago

'Blood in words': London schools tackle gangs with verse

LONDON (Reuters) - Students from gang-ridden areas of the East London borough of Hackney have been learning how performing poetry can help tackle life, one word at a time.

The Spoken Word Education Programme, founded by a former Chicago social worker, aims to help pupils in some of London’s most deprived districts to articulate their feelings and have their voices heard despite an often difficult upbringing.

“These kids are so disenfranchised,” said Christian Foley, a poet and spoken-word educator at Cardinal Pole school. “The gang warfare arises from the fact you own nothing, and so you’re going to fight over a lamppost because that’s all you have.”

Hackney was one of London’s four most dangerous boroughs in 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics. It also ranks in the bottom quarter of the capital’s 32 boroughs for a range of indicators including low income, health and education, according to London’s Poverty Profile, an independent data provider.

The spoken-word initiative began with Peter Kahn, who used poetry to help students in one of Chicago’s most crime-plagued districts. He found that pupils who could not discuss their problems would open up when performing poetry they had written, helped by the art form’s links to hip-hop music.

“I never had a way to express myself. Now I write every day,” said Cardinal Pole student Melandra Kwatiah.

Kahn cites one Chicago student who, after years of unsuccessful therapy, finally spoke out about being in an abusive relationship; another who talked about being raped by her father; a third who came out as gay.

“It’s about giving people a voice,” Kahn said.

“A Complicated Answer,” an anthology produced by the Hackney pupils, covers experiences from witnessing a stabbing to losing a friend to cancer. There are several about fathers leaving their families.

Kahn’s alumni have gone on to become rappers, win scholarships at prestigious U.S. universities, and even include NBA player Iman Shumpert — currently playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers alongside basketball legend LeBron James.

In Britain the program is backed by institutions including the Arts Council. Since its 2013 inception, Cardinal Pole has seen one student into Oxford University to study English literature; while others at the school, which is principally made up of ethnic minorities, have improved their English.

“There’s a link between your ability to articulate and the lifestyle you end up with,” said Raymond Antrobus, another poet-teacher on the program.

Poetry is not a panacea, though, and those involved in the program know it has its limits.

“You never give up, but sometimes it just takes time you don’t have,” Kahn said. “They may not make it to (age) 25.”

But despite this, at Cardinal Pole there seems to be an irrepressible optimism among students. What is poetry, the educators ask Tian Sewell Morgan, one of their star students.

She thinks for a few moments and answers: “Blood in words.”

Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich

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