Archive August 2017

Urban Possibilities: Giving Voice to Inner-City Job Seekers

Eyvette Jones Johnson and her husband Craig Johnson are founders of Urban Possibilities, an empowerment program that uses writing and performance to help inner-city job seekers thrive in the marketplace and in life. Craig is a photographer who chronicles their journey and Eyvette serves as executive director. For fifteen years, she was a TV producer creating shows for networks that include CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. Today, she uses skills honed in entertainment to help adults find their voices, tell their stories, and bring diverse audiences together to celebrate their talent. 80 percent of Urban Possibilities students are or have been homeless.

Each time an inner-city job seeker walks through our doors, we see unparalleled treasure. To make sure audiences and employers see it too, we know our job is to deliver light into deep dark places. The voices and stories of our students are buried under life’s toughest circumstances: homelessness, joblessness, abuse, addiction, and military trauma, among others. Our students are adults, often marginalized, fighting to survive and searching for work in the homeless capital of America: Los Angeles.

Supported by Poets & Writers from the day we began, our twelve-week Writing Empowerment program at Chrysalis job center is a fueling station that turns pain into power for those making their way back from the abyss. Writing and sharing their truths help ignite their comeback. Weekly classes, most recently led by P&W–supported teaching artist Jesse Bliss, help urban job seekers deal with trauma, rediscover their strength, and tell their stories poetically and with power—all skills needed for a successful job search.

Each class culminates in a public performance by students of their original work. Teaching artists from our partners at the Geffen Playhouse coach students to perform their pieces. In each show, we watch our students take the stage and take flight, including students like Norma and Keith.

In our classes, it is common to have students who have been rendered mute by the brutal blows they’ve faced, and Norma was no exception. A middle class woman hurled into silence and homelessness by domestic violence, she’d lost her will months before we met. Norma said, “I was preparing to take my life but this class opened my heart to see beyond my darkness and despair and showed me the greatness that was always there. Now I use my voice in the service of others like me. I use my talent to create change.”

Keith was silent in another way. A soldier in the British Army for over twenty years, he lived from a young age with the ravages of war and in the daily human wreckage of combat zones. He survived in a band of brothers, but watched many of them fall. His closest friend died in his arms in the heat of battle. As a soldier and a Brit, he was taught to keep it all in, buttoned up tight. “Expressing your feelings was something you just didn’t do. But I learned by sharing my story the burdens I carried magically started to lessen and this incredible feeling of empowerment took over. Now in expressing I have the ability to receive and give back,” said Keith.

Norma and Keith were featured artists at Poets & Writers’ Connecting Cultures Reading this summer. As my husband Craig and I watched them poised on the stage, they affirmed beliefs that have become our true north: that there is a sea of untapped potential in inner-city communities just waiting to be set free; our history, no matter how devastating, does not have to dictate our destiny; and the greatest treasures are often buried where many least expect to find them, like the exquisite gold in plain sight walking the streets of Los Angeles’s Skid Row.

Support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Eyvette Jones Johnson (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (middle) Eyvette Jones Johnson with Norma L. Eaton and Keith Brown (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography). (bottom) Urban Possibilities workshop reading group shot with Chrysalis staff (Credit: Craig Johnson Photography).

The Power of Teaching and Storytelling: A Workshop for Bangladeshi Seniors

Ashwak Fardoush is a writer and a teacher. She was born in Bangladesh and emigrated to the United States with her family at a young age. Her writing explores issues related to gender and sexuality, trauma, body politics, immigration, and holistic writing practices. She facilitates workshops, coaches, and tutors writers to help them venture into unexplored terrains in their writing. Her work appeared in the Margins. She also has a blog about writing.

When India Home invited me to facilitate a bilingual memoir writing workshop for Bangladeshi seniors this year, I knew that I couldn’t pass up such an incredible teaching opportunity. The participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali.

The night before each class, I would take out Zahir Raihan’s Borof Gola Nodi (translated as River of Melted Ice): a slim book that had its spine falling apart, pages yellowed from age. I had taken out the same book from my aunt’s bookcase over two decades ago. I remember reading that novel one morning when shadows and light played on the veranda floor of my aunt’s rented house. That was many, many moons ago. I had left Bangladesh twenty years ago only to return back to the country once for a handful of days. During my visit, I found Raihan’s book again in my aunt’s home, this time an apartment where the windows looked out at tall buildings that blocked out the light. When my aunt saw the book in my hand, she smiled and told me I could keep it.

When I prepared for the workshop, the novel stayed by my side. In the evening I was immersed in the world of the characters. It was the training ground for the following morning when I would live inside the world created on the page by the writers who came to my workshop.

For eight weeks, the Bangladeshi seniors and I met every Thursday morning. I could see that time had left marks on their bodies. Slouched back, trembling hands, age spots. Time had left behind stories, too. The participants would lean over their marble notebooks and scribble away to capture these stories. They mapped out their lives on the page, sometimes traveling to far-flung places or going deep within themselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history, desires would run up against societal expectations. The seniors excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays.

I could see how much the writing workshop meant to the seniors. Salema Khatun said, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”

The workshop not only became the space for the seniors to write their stories but also a site for them to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams, and despair—and be witnessed with respect and camaraderie.

The workshop was meaningful for me, too. I found myself writing alongside the seniors in Bengali after so many years of not writing in that language. Once, I read aloud what I wrote: about being on a boat and moving through the drying Kopothakho River in Jessore, Bangladesh and watching the boatman pushing aside the water hyacinths with his paddle.

Raihan’s novel still sits by my bedside. That book was the boat that bridged the gap between many worlds—between the participants and me, between Bangladesh and the United States, between the different versions of myself.

Through the writing workshop the participants and I coauthored an experience, a story in itself that soon became part of our life’s narrative.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Photo: (bottom, left to right) Salema Khatun, Farida Talukdar, Quamrun Nahar, and Ashwak Fardoush. (top, left to right): Haque Mohammad, Md. Hoque, Rafiqul Islam, and Md. Mokbul Hossain. (Credit: Sabit Bhuiyan).

Echoes in These Streets: A Reading Series for Women Overcoming Homelessness

Daniela Jungova is the Development & Communications associate at Calvary Women’s Services, the award-winning organization that empowers homeless women in Washington, D.C., to transform their lives through housing, health, education, and employment programs. She feels lucky to have had the opportunity to witness the inspiration that poetry offers to women overcoming homelessness.

“Poetry is people conveying their dreams through words,” mused Sonja Berry, who attended all three of the Echoes in These Streets poetry readings at Calvary Women’s Services—an award-winning organization empowering homeless women in Washington, D.C.

The P&W–supported reading series took place over the course of three beautiful summer Sundays (July 9, 16 and 30) and featured five outstanding poets from the D.C. area—Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Hayes Davis, Katherine McCord, Saundra Rose Maley, and Nancy Arbuthnot. The poets were selected for their cultural relevancy, as well as the ability to connect with diverse populations—the majority of women living at Calvary are survivors of domestic violence, are learning to manage a mental illness, and/or are in recovery from substance abuse.

For many women facing similar challenges, closing up to the world is an easy way to cope. Berry, who came to Calvary four months ago, says that the poets’ openness was a true gift: “Seeing the poets describe reality in metaphors made me feel inspired, and, well, curious.”

Indeed, all five of the presenting poets got quite personal. Their poems tackled issues such as ordinary life, identity, depression, stereotypes, fatherhood, even breastfeeding. Some delivered their works boldly, fearlessly offering their musings to the world. Others invited the audience to an intimate conversation, softly whispering as if to a best friend. All of them though, voiced their inner thoughts in a genuine and relatable way.

Hayes Davis wrote in his piece “Musings”: “One myth that’s part truth / is men don’t always share sadness that rests / on a foundation of vulnerability.” In “Gaze,” Teri Ellen Cross Davis wrote: “Standing, I name myself / shedding the fiction of availability / becoming nonfiction.” In her piece about islands, Katherine McCord contemplated: “After all, swimming is all / luck. We have no gills / and islands are all light. / Escape that.” Saundra Rose Maley described a hot summer night scene in “First Blues”: “Televisions gone bleary / blinked / in front of men / in undershirts drinking beer.” In “Song,” Nancy Arbuthnot observed: “The best things are nearest / breath, light, flowers / the path just before you.”

Arbuthnot, a poetry teacher at the Naval Academy and longtime volunteer at Calvary Women’s Services, says most of her poems, like the one above, explore everyday life, spirituality, and the way we confront major life issues. Perhaps that’s why her poems resonated so strongly with women at Calvary. She feels the same way about them: “Echoes in These Streets was held on Sundays, and attendance was voluntary. The women who showed up were clearly very interested. They were an incredibly receptive audience, which is what every poet certainly appreciates. It’s been delightful—it made me wonder who really is giving and who is gaining.”

Echoes in These Streets brought much joy and inspiration to women at Calvary, who have long enjoyed experimenting with their own creative abilities. Even though the reading series is over, women at Calvary will have the support they need no matter what artistic endeavor they decide to undertake in the future—Calvary’s literacy and arts program, LEAP, runs year-round and is designed to empower women in understanding and using their own talents and strengths.

Elaine Johnson, who coordinates LEAP and witnesses women’s artistic sides firsthand, noted: “Echoes in These Streets deepened women’s relationship with writing. At the last session, the women were discussing the idea of continuing to meet on Sunday evenings to share and discuss their own poetry—and I see that as evidence of the lasting effect of the series!”

Nancy Arbuthnot agrees: “I think it’s really great that Poets & Writers makes it possible for poets to go out to communities like Calvary. Echoes in These Streets clearly showed that the audience and poets alike benefit from these readings.”

The staff and residents of Calvary Women’s Services would like to thank everyone who participated in the readings and savored poetry as a tool for self-expression, empowerment, and acceptance. A sincere thank you also goes to Poets & Writers who made it possible for the five brilliant poets to present their work to women at Calvary. There is no way these three wonderful evenings would have been possible without your generous support. Here at Calvary, your gift of poetry will certainly keep on giving.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Washington, D.C. is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Hayes Davis, Sonja Berry, and Teri Ellen Cross Davis (Credit: Elaine Johnson). (bottom) Saundra Rose Maley and Nancy Arbuthnot with audience member (Credit: Elaine Johnson).