A group of Northern Kentucky University students, faculty and staff, as well as others from the community, met on Monday to discuss restorative narratives in journalism as a part of the Lunch with the Pros series sponsored by NKU’s chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.
The speakers at this session included Tom Callinan, founder and director of the nonprofit Charitable Words, Elissa Yancey, director of special projects at the University of Cincinnati’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, and Bob Driehause, education reporter for WCPO.com.
Yancy said during the session that often times, people have become tired of the bad news that is often the forefront of journalism.
“I blame the 24/7 news cycle for some of the negativity that we see,” Yancy said. “You’re filling the air with crap all the time.”
Restorative narrative projects attempt to focus on resilience over loss and solutions over problems in an effort to share news from a new perspective.
Callinan said that context is really important in a restorative narrative project.
“Identify a huge problem or social issue,” Callinan said, “and then find a success story in the context of the bigger story.”
This is the best definition of our own wordupdocproject. Our documentary has been following a group of children who are growing up in a part of the country where poverty is a real problem. These kids are facing insurmountable odds every day and the Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam came to life as a way to give these kids a voice.
When we started this project, I had never heard of restorative narratives, but one student always stood out and that was Lacy.
He is that hope and success that we found in the midst of a much bigger story that will bring to light the social issue of poverty in Cincinnati.
Sara Drabik, EMB professor at NKU and one of our documentary mentors, put together this video that was shown during this session as an example of restorative narrative.
April 18, four school teams and eight individuals met to compete in the ultimate war of words for the Cincinnati Louder Than A Bomb.
Our own Lacy “Asylum” Robinson from Aiken New Tech High School, won the top score for the individual bout.
Robinson won the top prize at Cincinnati’s inaugural poetry slam competition. He performed two pieces of original poetry with the flare and enthusiasm his fans have come to expect.
In the crowd along with this teachers, mentors and fellow students sat quietly his mother and aunt. The relationship between Robinson and his mother has been shaky at times, but the support and love could be felt as Robinson performed.
At one point during his poem, Robinson said he hoped his mother would be proud of him. Out of the dark, she shouted out how proud she was of him and the audience responded with cheers.
During another section of his poem, as the audience cheered and shouted after nearly every line, Robinson would hold up his hand and wait. The audience would silence, hanging on his every word as Robinson continued his poem. Something that might be expected from a seasoned performer but surprising from an 18-year-old who only started writing poetry a short six months before.
Surly with this win under his belt, Robinson’s future is bright.
April 16 was the last WordUp meeting before the Louder Than A Bomb finals on Saturday, April 18. This was a moment the students and the tutors/coaches had been working toward since their first meeting back in October.
While most of the students came to talk about poetry, the focus of the meeting was getting Lacy Robinson ready for the finals and working with Tyrese Adams who will be the sacrificial poet.*
After WordUp is over and the room has nearly emptied, Lacy Robinson performs his new poem for Elese Daniels and Zohair Hussain.
Hussain has worked personally with Lacy all year. Watching them work together, one can tell the two have a lot of trust in each other. Hussain wants Lacy to perform the best he can and gives him constructive criticism.
Lacy listens to what his coach has to tell him, but he doesn’t always agree, which is just fine.
Also supporting Lacey is his girlfriend and fellow WordUp poet, Da’sia Clendenning. She watches Lacy practice his poem and you can see her mouthing the words to his poem.
“I’ve seen you perform this poem so many times,” Da’sia said after Lacy recited his poem for the tutors, “and this time was my favorite.”
Lacy has a good chance to win the Louder Than A Bomb competition so we will find out this Saturday.
* The sacrificial poet is invited to perform by the poetry slam host to warm up the mic. This poet is given a score by the judges to help calibrate their judging but the score does not count in the competition.
For the WordUp meeting on April 4, the students had a guest speaker, Abiyah, a Cincinnati poet/hip hop artist who was also one of the judges at the LTAB semi-finals.
Tutor Zohair Hussain said, “We were talking the last couple of weeks, actually all year, on how to apply poetry in the real world.”
“Abiyah does poetry, does hip hop, runs the hip hop scene in Cincinnati,” Hussain said, “so I thought it would be great for her to come here today and talk to you guys about what it’s really like to be a living, working poet and how to be successful.”
The students were all very excited to have Abiyah with them and clapped excitedly after she was introduced.
“Thanks for having me everyone,” Abiyah started.
She shared with the students how she had started doing poetry in high school by submitting poems to a poetry book and she has few poems published in a book, but she shared that she went through some hard things as a teen and poetry helped.
“We just go through stuff in life as people, right, so, you know, you got to get that out,” Abiyah said, “[poetry] is a good way to get that out.”
She talked about how poetry helped her deal with issues with her mom and with being different explaining that she was a punk rocker.
“Now [being a punk rocker is] cool,” Abiyah said. “It was not cool in the mid-80s…so just talking about that frustration about being different and being weird and being ostracized was expressed in my poetry.”
Abiyah spoke with the students and shared some of her pieces and even answered some of their questions and then took some time to work individually with Lacy Robinson and Tyrese Adams who will be performing at the LTAB finals on April 18.
The WordUp meeting after the Louder Than A Bomb semi-finals on March 19 was a relaxing time of reflection for the students and the tutors to discuss how they felt and what they learned.
With donuts for comfort and a beach ball for some fun, Elese Daniels wanted the kids to feel comfortable and relaxed as they reflected on their experience at the semi-finals.
WordPlay co-founder Libby Hunter stopped by to see the students and to have them all sign one of the Louder Than A Bomb posters.
“I’m so proud of what these kids accomplished,” Hunter said.
For this meeting, Daniels wrote a few questions on a beach ball and the students sat in a circle and passed the ball around and who ever caught the ball had to answer the question their thumb touched.
“What would you have done different?” was the questions Micayla Jordan landed on.
“I guess, try not to get nervous,” Micayla said. “Every time someone went up, I felt nervous…and then when I got up on stage, I felt like I was going to throw up.”
Daniels said, “I feel like it’s hard not to get butterflies.”
She then brought up something one of the other tutors, Zohair Hussain, had said earlier.
“Use that nervousness and put it through in your poem when you actually read it out loud,” Daniels said. “Use all those nerves and energy that you feel and apply it to how you sound.”
Da’sia Clendenning answered the question, “What was the most challenging aspect of the slam?”
“Getting up there and sounding confident and making you believe I know what I’m talking about,” Da’sia said.
“You went up twice,” Daniels said.
“Yes…I think I was more nervous on the first performance than I was on the second performance,” Da’sia said, “because on the second performance, I was able to speak louder and I was able to sell it, but I was still nervous.”
They answered other questions but one issue some of the students brought up was if the seniors who are graduating this year would be able to participate again next year.
“I think the only thing that got me through college was doing open mics at houses, at coffee shops and I met most of my friends there…so you guys should be able to find something.”
Still, nearly all of the students said they would want to participate in Louder Than A Bomb again.
Tutor Sam Foulkes said before he had to leave, “I’m really, really proud of all you guys.”
“I probably would have fainted if I had to get up on that stage and read something that had came from inside,” Foulkes said, “but a big congrats to you all.”
Daniels reminded the students that they should feel proud of what they were able to accomplish and even though they didn’t advance as a team, Lacy did earn the highest individual score and the rest of the students all performed well.
“I think everybody should go to the finals,” Daniels said as they were finishing up their meeting, “since we have three, well, four people performing from our clubs…Lacy as a finalist and the others as opening acts.”
“It’s April 18, inside the Freedom Center,” Daniels said.
This Saturday, teens from around the city will end a journey that began seven months ago when they meet at the Harriet Tubman Theater for the final bouts of the Cincinnati Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam.
A team of communication students from Northern Kentucky University has been documenting the students from Aiken New Tech High School who make up the WordUp and Aiken teams, and who represent two of the eight teams competing in the LTAB semi-finals.
This is a diary of the events from the semi-finals on March 14.
9:13 a.m.- Students, teachers, coaches, parents and children fill the seats in the small, dark DAAP auditorium on University of Cincinnati’s campus. With its modest stage and seating, room 5401 is about to become the battleground where students from across the city and backgrounds will compete for a spot at the finals.
The booth where the DJ’s sit glows in the dark. Designed by UC students using LED lights, the four acrylic panels emanate messages throughout the slam to reveal the LTAB logo and song lyrics designed to look like a sound wave which conveys that sound is just as important as words.
In the center of the stage, a sign with the LTAB logo shows a microphone rising from the words and a fist clenching a pen, conveying the power of the written and spoken word.
Aiken New Tech High School senior Lacy “Asylum” Robinson, 17, is the first of the WordUp students to arrive and he keeps to himself at first and finds a quiet seat to review his poem until other students arrive.
9:46 a.m. – The audience is welcomed by McMicken College of Arts & Sciences Dean Ken Petren.
“This is something we need to do more of,” Petren said. “I’m here to tell the participants, ‘Take a deep breath. Relax, the preparation is over. You’re ready to go. Let it fly. We want to hear your voice and hear what you have to say.'”
9:51 am – Emcee Tony Styxx, a spoken word artist from Indianapolis, takes the stage to a modest applause.
“Now, I drove all the way here in Noah’s Ark style rain for that greeting, so let’s try that again.”
Styxx takes a deep breath and then whispers in the microphone, “This is going to be awesome.”
9:56 a.m. – Tony Styxx explains to the audience that the slam will consist of two team bouts with each bout containing four rounds. Four teams will compete in each bout and send up one poet for each round. After each bout, the scores from each of the rounds will be added and the top two teams will advance to the final. Styxx also has the time-keeper raise her hand who will be keeping time and signal the poets if they go over three minutes.
“Now remember, don’t rush. Live, breathe that piece, but keep it within three minutes,” Styxx said.
After both bouts, there will be an individual competition where poets will compete head-to-head and the top eight poets will advance to the finals.
10:00 a.m. – Tony Styxx asks the audience if they are ready to start the competition
“This is called Louder Than A Bomb and that sounded like a firecracker. Are you ready?”
Audience erupts again into loud applause and yells of excitement as the first round of the first bout begins.
10:04 a.m. – Styxx calls up the first poet from the WordUp team and Tayshona Holliday is the first on stage and free-styled her poem because she forgot the piece she had been working on and got a great response from the audience.
10:16 a.m. – Aiken junior Gift Mayambi, 15, goes up on stage to represent the WordUp team and performs what he calls, “A love letter to my crush.”
“Love is the plant of the most tender kind,” he starts.
10:22 a.m. – “I’m supposed to be the professional here,” Styxx said. “I’m gonna get back to Indianapolis and they be like, ‘How are you?’ I got showed up by a bunch of kids, that’s how I am. It’s traumatic. I got PTSD from a poetry slam.”
10:34 a.m. – Ending round three is Roman Mayambi representing the WordUp team.
“The road is long and we wonder why. It’s like I found my voice in spoken word.”
10:43 a.m. – The first poet for the fourth round finished a poem about the racial violence our nation has recently witnessed and the audience was moved.
“How many of you in here are old enough to remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding?” Styxx asks the audience and some of the parents start to laugh. “I’m gonna have to catch some of these poets out back, man.”
10:48 a.m. – Robinson is the last poet for the WordUp team. He performed a poem about a girl he loves and the trials of dealing with a mental disorder. Robinson is a natural performer who doesn’t like to think too much about what he’s going to say before he gets up on stage. He writes the basic idea of what he wants to say and then goes up on stage and says whatever comes out. If he’s nervous, it doesn’t show as he begins.
“And so I’ve got this problem, right,” Robinson begins. “I can’t shake the fact that me and this girl I really love got into a fight.”
Robinson has a powerful presence on stage and a unique perspective and flow that cause people to stop and take notice. The audience explodes into applause when he finishes.
Styxx said. “I guess y’all were listening!”
11:24 a.m. – Tony Styxx takes to the stage and announces that the second bout is about to start.
“Now remember y’all gladiators. Y’all titans. You got this.”
11:33 a.m. – Aiken Senior Casey Roberts is the first poet from the Aiken team to compete in round one of the second bout.
11:44 a.m. – A student from the Seven Hills team performs his piece about a Jew verses and Arab and a misunderstanding they have.
“In the end, we all come from the dirt, but we all come from the same dirt. Dirt fallen from the stars.”
11:48 a.m. – Tony Styxx said, “Alright. The next LTAB, it’s all of y’all against me!”
11:58 a.m. – Another student from the Seven Hills team performs her piece on OCD.
“Dear God, today I realized I left my bible on the floor. I forgot to say please when asking, ‘Can you pass me a fork?’ and was too late to ameliorate my misconduct. I told a secret. I lied to the cafeteria lady so I wouldn’t have to eat her mushy pears and now someone’s going to get hurt because I am a sinner.”
“What?!” Tony Styxx said from the audience.
“Dear God, I curse everyday now. Dear God, I lie one thousand times. Dear God, I don’t go to church on Sundays. Dear God, I can sleep.”
“What?!” Styxx said. “Every time you guys get up here, my brain is still trying to catch up from the first round of the first bout. I haven’t even processed everything else yet. Man, so tiny. She’s so tiny and she came over here and just ran wheels. If you play spades, you know what that means.”
“You guys are so dope. Inspiring. Remember, if what you do or what you participate in doesn’t inspire you to be ten times greater, then what you’re doing is pretty much a waste of time.” Styxx said.
12:20 p.m. – Everyone breaks for a pizza lunch. Students from different teams take the time to talk with each other and to talk about their poetry.
Robinson will be competing in the individual bout and needs to choose whether to perform the same piece he already performed or to perform a completely new poem for the individual bout so he takes a moment to speak with WordUp tutor Zohair Hussain. After getting some words of encouragement, Robinson sits near the stage and writes a new poem he will later perform as his individual piece.
1:18 p.m. – Tony Styxx announces the winners of the team bouts and Hughes/SCPA, Voices at Work, Walnut Hills and Seven Hills teams will compete in the finals on April 18th.
“For those of you who do not advance on to April 18th, I need you to realize something,” Styxx said. “Every single student that has touched this stage has made an impressive mark on this stage.”
1:21 p.m. – Aiken Sophomore Ronnie Adams, 15, starts off the individual slam from WordUp to perform her piece called, “Cinderella,” which discusses how fairy tales don’t represent how everyone feels about love.
“Homosexuality is found in over 450 species. Homophobia is found in one. Neither of these are found in fairy tales.”
Ronnie loses her place and you can tell the nerves are starting to get to her. She covers her face with her rainbow gloves as if she were about to cry. Members of the audience begin to snap to show her support.
Shouts of, “You got this!” and other cries of support can be heard from the audience until she continues her piece.
“The only thing wrong with being gay is the way people treat you when they find out because when I say, ‘Love,’ what comes to mind? Cinderella. But I’m not her and she’s not me. I’m the only me there is and she’s the only she she is. I’m sorry mom’s but I’m not Cinderella.”
After finishing her piece, Adams runs off stage and beings to cry. Her coach and mentor, Elese Daniels and Wordplay co-founder Libby Hunter go out to give her support and after a few moments, she returns to the auditorium.
1:28 p.m. – Tyrese Adams, Ronnie’s twin sister, is up next and she performs her poem, “History.”
“History or His story,” Tyrese asks the audience. “Because we’re American, we’re supposed to be a reference but failed to realize the genocide of Native Americans and suddenly Hitler’s the bad guy because he killed all those Jewish men and women, but we were different. See, we were Jesus sent. Jesus told us to move westward. It was our manifest. Our destiny to expand the American culture I guess.”
1:58 p.m. – Lacy “Asylum” Robinson is waiting to perform next and high fives the poet who is on deck after him.
“That’s what I like to see,” Styxx says after seeing them high-five. “Just cause I’m coming up after you and you’re coming up before me doesn’t mean we can’t greet each other.”
Robinson performs the poem he had just written during the break.
“I do what I do because I dream to be one of the chosen few. I do what I do to find the golden nugget of happiness that is otherwise surrounded in a sea of blues. See, I’m a superhero in my mind and this here is my cape so when I get to my stage, my metropolis, I can say that for close to three minutes, I flew.”
3:00 p.m. – Tony Styxx announces the winners of the individual bout and the top eight scores will compete at the finals on April 18. Lacey “Asylum” Robinson is last name called and wins a spot in the finals. He falls to the ground on his knees and sheds both tears and shouts of both relief and joy before taking his place with the other finalists on stage. It is learned after that Robinson had scored the highest individual score of the night.
Tyrese Adams is named an alternate for the individual bout and if one of the finalists can’t participate for any reason, she will compete.
It’s 2:46 pm. Several students are still in the hallway at Aiken High School. Some students are making their way to band practice. Some are waiting to be picked up. The final overhead announcement signals that school is over for the day and students should be heading to their after-school activities or heading home.
Lockers slam shut. Sneakers squeak across the floor. The hallway empties. All that’s left are the posters adorning the hallway and the occasional yellow pencil, forgotten on the floor.
Still, in room 1138, a lot is happening. Students are talking about their day with teachers and coaches and friends as the WordUp team settles in for their last meeting before the semi-finals on Saturday.
With less than 42 hours until show time, you might expect a group of high school students to be nervous. Well, if these kids were nervous, you couldn’t tell by looking at them. There is excitement in the air.
“You want to talk about some poetry stuff?” Elese Daniel asks the group as things start to settle down. “Let’s do this.”
Some of the students have their piece memorized and ready to perform while some are still working which has made some of the tutors nervous.
Kate Spencer sits with Tayshona Holliday who has been working on an emotionally charged piece about her break-up. As she wipes away her tears and struggles to get through her newest piece, it’s clear the emotions are still very raw for her.
Getting up from the table, she says, “I just need a minute” and she takes a walk down the hallway.
While Tayshona is taking a break, Daniel comes over and sits down with Spencer where they speak quietly about the poem.
“It’s so close to her right now,” Spencer said, “She’s going to break down when she tries to do it.”
When Tayshona comes back, Spencer shows her the piece she has started a few weeks before that Daniel found in her bag.
“This is where you need to start,” Spencer said. “This is something fresh and really specific and this is something that nobody else has said.
Tayshona thinks about it for a moment and after her friend and fellow poet, Da’sia Clendenning agreed this other piece is stronger, she agrees to work on the older piece to polish for the semi-finals.
“The frustration is that if [the students] don’t have something on paper to show me, I can’t help them,” Spencer said later as she tapped on top a crumpled piece of notebook paper. “I’ve just been at such loose ends feeling like I’m not accomplishing anything for them and that makes me crazy.”
Others are also working one-on-one to polish their pieces in time for the semi-finals.
Tyrese Adams steps into the hallway with a tutor and performs her piece completely from memory.
Lacy Robison works with tutor Zohair Hussain with his words shining of the white board.
Hussain tells him, “No performance should ever be the same…because you’re always getting better. You’re always getting more practice on the poem…more in tune with your emotions.”
At 5:03, the students began packing up their bags and jackets and started heading home. WordUp is over for another day and the kids have notes for what to work on before Saturday.
As the room clears and the noise begins to die down, tutor Sam Foulkes said when asked if the kids are ready, “I feel like they are at 90% and the last 10% is on them.”
“I’m nervous that one of them is going to suddenly wilt under the lights, you know,” Foulkes said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that’s always a risk. As long as they know that if they mess something up they can just keep going. That’s the only thing.”
Hussian added, “My only nerves are about this having a negative impact if this doesn’t turn out the way they expect. I mean, I think this [competition] comes secondary to them writing. It’s just a fun byproduct of them having the opportunity to do something they love the same way an athlete would. That’s fun for them and I think it’s great they get to do that, but I would be frustrated if a negative result discouraged them from ever doing this again. So as long as that doesn’t happen, I’ll be fine.”
The semi-finals are Saturday from 9:30 am until 5 pm at the University of Cincinnati DAAP theater and I suppose time will tell if the kids are ready.
With Cincinnati buried under nearly 4 inches of fresh snow, it’s no wonder why last night’s workshop session with the WordUp team had been cancelled.
With the semi-finals rapidly approaching, some may be concerned about the lost practice. The tutors last night were going to focus on revision, performance and push memorization last night, according to the team coach, Elese Daniels.
“Get them to focus on one piece and truly work on performance,” Daniels said in an email that went out the the group before the storm hit.
Hopefully, the kids took the extra time off of school to work on their poetry.
The good news is that six students are registered to compete in the semi-finals on March 13 & 14 and we have great hopes for them.
The semi-finals for Louder Than A Bomb will be held at the University of Cincinnati (uptown campus) in the College Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) building, room 5400 and is open to the public.
Formal Cincinnati Bengals Linebacker, Dahani Jones will MC the finals on April 18.
October 2014, three Northern Kentucky University students met with their professors and the non-profit director of WordPlay to discuss a possible documentary project. The idea was to follow a group of Cincinnati youth as they prepared to compete in a national poetry slam coming to Cincinnati in April. This blog documents our experience and the making of a documentary!