For incarcerated youth and adults literacy is about more than spelling words “correctly.” It’s about believing you have something to say and learning that people will listen.
By Peggy Simmons, Library Assistant, Elmhurst Branch
“When I’m locked up, I see a pencil and paper as my best friends …. I’ve been locked up over 18 times, and writing is one of my strongest traits.”
– Pengo in The Beat Within. Read his entire article, “Why I Write,” here.
When Pengo was 11-years-old, The Beat Within, an arts program that publishes writing by incarcerated young people, came to the juvenile hall where he was locked up and “turned him on to this beautiful thing called writing.” Pengo writes so clearly about how writing helps him deal with the situations he is in. He is also very clear that he needed help and encouragement to believe in himself as someone who writes.
For Pengo and others, literacy is about more than being able to spell and read “correctly.” Literacy is about believing you have something to say and learning that people will listen.
I am a Library Assistant for the Oakland Public Library at the Elmhurst Branch in deep East Oakland. I have had the honor and privilege to volunteer with The Beat Within for 7 years, most recently as part of Oakland Public Library’s community outreach programs. I help run weekly writing workshops at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center (the county’s “juvenile hall”) and then type, edit and respond to the writing for the biweekly magazine.
For the last two years, leading up to the annual deadline of the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program, I have also facilitated Amherst Writers and Artist workshops and provided one-on-one support for about 20 incarcerated teens, partnering with Alameda County’s Write to Read program.
Oakland Public Library is committed to making sure kids in the hall have the opportunity to participate in Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate program. This year, two youth applied. One of them, a 17-year-old named Ronnie, was introduced to poetry in my workshop and immediately fell in love with it. He then read a lot of poetry and worked really hard on his writing both inside and outside of the workshop. After three months of hard work Ronnie applied to the Laureate program and was named one of ten finalists, competing against many young people who had had much more experience and mentorship. Just before the final round of judging, he received his sentence. He was going to remain locked up for the coming year and had to drop out of the running. He was still proud and felt that the experience changed his life. Ronnie now sees himself as a writer — a young man with something to say. And people listen.
Through Write to Read, the author Coe Booth came to speak at juvenile hall. Ronnie was invited to go with her and speak to other youth. He talked about getting involved with poetry and how it helped him. He talked about how there are resources at juvenile hall and why it’s important to take advantage of them. He told the younger kids that if he knew at their age what he knew now, he would not be in jail.
Like Pengo, he discovered the beauty in writing.
I’ve learned a lot from the young people I work with at the hall, and this is one of the biggest lessons: Developing a love of writing and reading changes lives – regardless of whether you spell things correctly or learn perfect grammar. The path to literacy begins with the courage to write something down in the first place.
Oakland Public Library is committed to literacy programs that encourage incarcerated youth and adults to realize they have something to teach the world. We are honored to partner with The Beat Within, Write to Read, numerous adult re-entry programs, and – most of all – the students who teach us as much as we teach them.
Here is one of the poems in Ronnie’s Youth Poet Laureate application.
This city called Oakland
Where you sail the bus of the concrete sea
With brothers in their scrappers like pirates of the seven seas
Instead of swords, they have guns
Killing all their patnas for fun
Stripping them from jays to their lives
A lot of people don’t think of the pain they bring
To their once best friend’s family
Now he’s in a casket 6 feet under the ground
His family is screaming and yelling
But the poor boy can’t hear a sound
This city called Oakland
Where the happy rich people live in the hills
If you go down a little bit further we call it the vill
Where every day a shooting happens
On the battlefield
Where a lady can’t walk down the street
Without six niggas trying to feast on her body
Where niggas make bands in their Polo and Trues
But still live at their mama’s house ‘cause they acting a fool
Spending their hard earned cash on Trues and shoes and having nothing
But a pricey tag and colored horse
In this city called Oakland
Where some people want to see the change
Because they respect where they come from
They’re tired of blacks and browns killing each other
Over hoes and blocks
Why can’t we be a unity?
Prove to the media
That more than a dope dealer or crack head can be raised from the streets
Kids at all the parks, family and friends chilling after dark
That is the Oakland I want to live in
But it won’t change with just me
I need everyone from the rich people in the hills
To the slaves of the streets
To take the leap to sweet victory
And prove them all wrong
In this city called Oakland