By Stacie Scherman
Kimberly Brown of Flint steps up to the mic at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Flint in the warm glow of spotlights illuminating the stage, and launches into a poem.
“We are so vulnerable to what happens to the waters that nourish us,” she reads. “It was always the other creatures that needed saving, never us. We thought. Now we rethink; the water is life.”
Afterward Brown said her reaction to the water situation is very personal and that her poem is part of her “grieving process.”
Along with 11 other performers and an audience of 60 that late February night, Brown had been given an opportunity to confront the city’s water crisis through the spoken word.
The event was the second of three in a series called Spotlight Poetry of Witness, or POW, co-sponsored by the UU Congregation of Flint and Artistic Visions Enterprise (AVE). The two organizations have partnered to “cross cultural, ethnic, religious and racial barriers,” according to UUCF member Rayna Bick.
The series’ three events, all featuring local poets and artists, are being held at UUCF, located at 2474 S. Ballenger Hwy. The first POW event focused on racism, the second on the Flint water crisis, and the final one, set for March 18, will explore the school-to-prison pipeline.
UUCF’s collaboration with AVE began in November 2015 when UUCF minister, Reverend Claudene F. “Deane” Oliva, met DeWaun E. Robinson, CEO of AVE. According to Robinson, 29, AVE, a Flint-based organization, primarily focuses on providing a “positive outlet and platform for youth creativity and innovation” in Flint.
Bick said that after meeting Robinson and learning about his organization, Oliva told the UUCF board that she wanted to do something with Robinson and the youth he works with. According to Bick, UUCF’s vision with POW is to “do something in the community to bring different people together and build relationships, especially with younger people.”
Robinson said that his mission for POW is to bring the community together and to provide an outlet for community members to share their perceptions about social issues. “What better way to express yourself than through poetry, art, and creative writing?” he asked.
Robinson added that one of his goals with the POW series is to help Flint community members “have fun” in the midst of the water crisis. He said, “We’re still going to enjoy ourselves. We’re going to stay active, we’re going to stay positive, we’re going to be optimistic and we’re going to make sure the long term solution is done. We’re going to be fighting on it during the day and having fun by evening.”
POW performers, including poets and visual artists, each receive a free meal provided by UUCF and a ten dollar gift card. Bick said that UUCF has held poetry slam competitions in the past, but this time they wanted to support all of the artists equally. Non-performers pay five dollars for admission and five dollars for dinner during intermission. Additional proceeds also go to AVE, the videographer, and the photographer. Bick said, “Our goal was not to make money,” but rather “to co-sponsor in a way that we would cover our costs.”
Robinson said the POW series is part of AVE’s “tour around Flint,” which began in December 2015 at the Greater Flint Arts Council.
The first POW event, held in January, focused on racism, and had about seven performers, according to Olivia Johnson, 23, who helps with marketing for AVE. She said planners found POW performers through word of mouth, flyers and social media. Johnson added some people who attended the first POW event as spectators were inspired to sign up as performers in the second POW event.
The twelve performers at the second event, including Brown, addressed personal, political, environmental, and global perspectives through poetry, spoken word, song, and visual art.
John Straw, 70, a former science teacher, read a poem connecting Flint’s water crisis to global pollution. “If you think the lead crisis in Flint is bad,” he said in his introduction, “the future based on hydraulic fracking will pollute the water for everyone.”
Flint water-themed visual art was also presented, including a mural painted by youths in the local community art project, “Gallery on the Go.” Three children also presented water-related drawings they created during the POW event.
The third and final POW event will be held March 18 and will focus on the school-to-prison pipeline in Flint. Robinson explained that they chose this topic because “this is something we should be talking about. We’re talking about the water, but [we need to] talk about incarceration and the school to prison pipeline because there is no public education that is impactful here in the city. We really want to put that subject at the top and in the forefront of everyone’s minds.”
Robinson added that “the youth feel like they have been forgotten, and we really want to have some young people express how they feel.”
AVE is also working with citizens returning from prison to provide them with a platform to share their experiences. “They just need an opportunity,” Robinson said. “If there were opportunities in place before, they would have had a different outcome in their life. We want to make sure we provide that opportunity; even though that is not at the top of the line of things to do right now, we need to make sure it’s there.”
After the POW series, AVE expects to host Spotlight events at the Job Corps and Buckham Gallery, Robinson said. “We are trying to be proactive. We definitely need to provide a platform for the generation coming up.”
Staff writer Stacie Scherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.