CINCINNATI -- The teens should have been in study hall at Aiken High School on Tuesday.
Instead, they sat in a circle in a room off the cafeteria, writing and rhyming about broken nails, relationships, school work done or undone, grief over a grandmother who passed away last week, after-school jobs and whether they feel safe walking down the street.
These Aiken students are participating in Cincy Scribes, a program from WordPlay Cincy. The nonprofit organization dedicated to using literacy and storytelling as tools against poverty brought Cincy Scribes into Aiken this year, expanding it from an extra-curricular offered only at WordPlay's Hamilton Avenue space. They expanded in part because so many teens were eager to tell their stories.
Desirae Hosley, a spoken-word artist and poet who runs Cincy Scribes for WordPlay, was visiting classes at Aiken to promote another program for the nonprofit, WordUp. Killing time in a study hall, she gave a writing prompt to some students, and their response was so positive that she and WordPlay Executive Director Libby Hunter decided they had to bring the program into the school.
“It's catching kids who might never get out here, who aren't mobile, to get out to WordPlay,” Hosley said. “They get credit, but that's not really the point.”
Cincy Scribes was born of the idea of helping teenagers capture their stories. “You talk, I'll write the words,” Hunter said. The program, supported by U.S. Bank and the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, is part of WordPlay's web of programming aimed at children and teens.
On Saturdays, Cincy Scribes is a collection of teens, mostly girls, from all over the region. They come from Colerain and Anderson Township, Dixie Heights in Kentucky, Aiken and Country Day School. They come from upper-middle class and lower-income families. And each week, they meet at WordPlay to talk and write about their lives.
On Tuesdays at Aiken, another 24 scribes skip their study hall to write with Hosley, WordPlay writer-in-resident Elese Daniel and the Blvck Seeds, a collective of artists who volunteer their time to help. This week, they asked the students to write about “things I should've said or done,” and asked them to share their stories or poems.
“We gotta stand up?” asked 15-year-old Jaden Taylor.
“Good idea,” said Blvck Seeds artist Siri Imani.
“I never shoulda said that,” Taylor said. He ducked his head and began to write. He said he decided to come to Cincy Scribes because it seemed like a better, more beneficial use of his time than study hall.
Another Blvck Seeds artist, Jessi Jumanji, turned a rough draft from 15-year-old Arielle Johnson about a broken nail and a wish for a better car into a rhyme about working harder and being young. Johnson, who had been shy about sharing her story, smiled and snapped in praise as Jumanji shared her vision.
“It's about confidence,” Hosley said.
Since WordPlay began five years ago, more than 6,000 children and families have participated. WordPlay now has two full-time and two part-time staff members and a $250,000 budget, and its work is supported by the community. For the first time this year, individual donations surpassed grants.
WordPlay has offered after-school programs at Aiken since 2012. Hunter said they considered expanding programming like Cincy Scribes to other schools, but instead decided to “go deeper” at Aiken to reach more students.
WordPlay's storefront is a “third place,” Hunter said - not home, not school, but a haven for children, teens and their parents to tell their stories and have difficult conversations. Through the expansion of Cincy Scribes, WordPlay is bringing that “third place” to students.
On Tuesday, after one student particularly impressed the group with a poem seemingly made up on the spot, the rest shook their heads and hemmed and hawed about who would go next. Everyone had an excuse. Hers wasn't serious enough. His didn't rhyme as well. Another just didn't have anything to say.
“You gotta tell your story,” Hosley told the students. “Your story is just as real."