Detroit's InsideOut Turns Twenty

Jonathan Vatner

With Detroit’s population hovering just below seven hundred thousand, it is notable that the city’s largest literary arts organization, InsideOut, which invites poets into schools throughout the city, has reached more than fifty thousand students since its inception. The nonprofit celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and founder and executive director Terry Blackhawk—the organization’s fairy godmother, as she refers to herself—will retire this month, leaving behind a thriving organization that is committed to nurturing students’ creativity and self-expression through poetry programs both in and out of the classroom.

The idea for InsideOut was first conceived in the late eighties when Blackhawk, a schoolteacher and poet, began inviting established poets to visit her English classes in order to introduce students to the transformative power of poetry. Her work caught the attention of Robert Shaye, an alumnus of Detroit’s Mumford High School, the founder of New Line Cinema, and head of his own charitable nonprofit, Four Friends Foundation. At Shaye’s invitation, Blackhawk successfully submitted a grant proposal to the group for a citywide endeavor to place writers in schools to teach poetry. By 1995 InsideOut was on its feet, with its first writers-in-residence teaching poetry one day a week in five Detroit high schools.

InsideOut has since expanded well beyond those first five: With an annual budget of more than eight hundred thousand dollars, the organization now brings its writers-in-residence program to twenty-seven schools in the Detroit area. Through this initiative poets teach weekly workshops for twenty-five weeks, then design and publish an anthology of student work at the end of each year. In addition to its classroom presence, InsideOut has also launched a diverse series of innovative projects and collaborations: an afterschool performance poetry troupe called Citywide Poets; an annual high school writers conference at Wayne State University; writing centers designed to help students with their college applications; operas written and performed by third- and fourth-graders; and a multigenre performance piece based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. InsideOut is also a founding member of the Writers in the Schools Alliance, a professional network of more than thirty literary-arts education programs and individuals across the United States and beyond.

The nonprofit’s mission is to encourage students’ self-expression and confidence through poetry. Peter Markus, an author who has taught with InsideOut since its inception, has observed how empowering writing can be for students, especially in a struggling city like Detroit. “I want [students] to feel that what they have to say matters,” Markus says, “that what they write about the world outside the window—or the world inside their head—is of value, and that the world can learn something when they put words down on a piece of paper.”

InsideOut often has a long-term impact on both the students’ writing skills and their sense of identity. “Our evaluations show that kids who have our program are more confident writers and more likely to revise their work,” Blackhawk says. “They get to know each other better and have a better sense of self. Their teachers say that attendance goes up on poetry day.” Nandi Comer, a former student of Blackhawk’s, doesn’t think she would be a writer today if it weren’t for InsideOut. Now a published poet and essayist with an MFA from Indiana University, Comer teaches InsideOut classes herself. “When I was in high school, everybody was being funneled into the sciences, engineering, and medicine,” Comer says, “and [Blackhawk] created a space in our classroom for writing and showed us how to express ourselves.”

InsideOut has also received some well-deserved recognition outside Detroit. In 2011 an InsideOut team placed fourth in the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam held in San Francisco; in 2013 Natasha Trethewey, who was then U.S. poet laureate, featured the program in her PBS series, Where Poetry Lives. And in 2009 InsideOut won the Coming Up Taller Award (now called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award), a major honor for extracurricular programs presented by Michelle Obama.

To mark its twentieth anniversary, the organization is publishing an anthology in August. To Light a Fire: 20 Years With the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (Wayne State University Press) features twenty-three essays by InsideOut educators—including Blackhawk, Markus, and Comer—documenting their experiences in the classroom. Other celebratory events are being planned, including a public-art display called OutWords, through which Blackhawk aims to wrap verses around buildings across Detroit and use them for a treasure hunt.

In the meantime, InsideOut is seeking a successor for Blackhawk, who will remain involved with the organization as a board member and director emerita. After taking some time off to travel and write, Blackhawk plans on returning to the classroom to teach with InsideOut, doing what she’s done all along, and demonstrating what makes her so valuable to her city: empowering students to write their truth. “Your heart feels so full when you’ve had a good poetry workshop with young people,” she says. “It’s a very alive and wonderful thing to be able to do.”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the alumni magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.