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On March 7, as the first hints of spring sun were peeking through, a new generation of poets rose at an unofficial coronation ceremony known as the Grand Slam Finals at Arena Stage. These new poets have big shoes to fill as they step up to carry the crown earned by the 2014 DC Youth Slam Team, the reigning national champions. Among the new crew, there’s Henry Lozano, the youngest; Bobbi Johnson, the Grand Slam champion (her prize is bragging rights); and Tajai ‘Geminye’ Williams (above), the runner-up and one of only two returning team members.

Williams, 17, stumbled upon the team mostly by chance, attending open mics around the city unaware they doubled as opportunities to compete for spots on the DC Youth Slam Team. Onstage, he’s a force—confident and brutally honest, he spits lines like this: “Like maybe. Like will I love myself today? Like will I care what they say today? Like how much is my self worth today? Do I have any self-worth today?…My name is Tajai Williams, and I never paid my debt to society, I’m still alive.”

But in person, he’s coy. When asked if he’s lost a lot of friends to violence, he says, simply, “Enough.” When asked about his honors status at his high school: “I guess.” It’s optimism shrouded by the pessimism that sometimes shows itself in the wake of difficult experiences.

“I’m still alive, and America usually wants young black men to die, from my perspective,” Williams says. Does America want him dead, too? “Yes,” he says, pausing briefly. “Because I’m trying to be better.”

Williams’ conscious, politicized outlook is typical of the youth slam team, which is housed under Split This Rock, a D.C.-based organization that “cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change.” Elizabeth Acevedo is headed into her third year coaching the team—they earned second place her first year; her second, they were champions.

“The fact that a city that is constantly being looked at in terms of how its education system is failing, in terms of how it’s being gentrified, in terms of the crime rate—-to say the youth in the city are remarkable and artistic and recognized on a national level for their talent really offers a counter story to a lot of the ways in which we think about D.C. youth,” she says. “I think the city needs this team, and it needs this organization because it’s a constant reminder that there’s so many positive young people that we disregard or that we criminalize, and they do exceptional things.”

Acevedo had largely stepped away from slam poetry for the better part of a decade before she became a member of the adult Beltway Slam Team. They, too, are the current national champions. She attributes her return to the stage and part of the adult team’s success to the influence of the youth.

“I think a large part of [the Beltway Slam Team’s win] was the push from our students to succeed and their example of just really being brave and getting on stage and doing their best,” she says. “I wasn’t really writing as much anymore…but the [youth] team really challenged me to get back into it and to not be afraid of whatever it was that was holding me back. Having won a national competition after 10 years of not slamming…to me, it was because these students brought me into a circle of the arts and pushed me to consider that my words were necessary.”

One of the main goals of Split this Rock is to encourage every individual to realize the value and necessity of their own voices and narratives. Though the teams are competitive, their prizes are greater than any ribbon, medal, or trophy. For 17-year-old Quintin ‘Zayy’ Paschall, the second returning member of the team, some of the reward comes in the form of salvation.

“Poetry is an outlet. It’s my soapbox…It’s definitely something I feel has protected me from a lot of things,” he says. “Me going to open mics and poetry slams has saved me from staying in the house and being bored of course, but also, it’s kept me out of situations where I know systems made for me to fall [are in place].”

A self-labeled “6-foot-tall black guy who fits many descriptions” from Anacostia, Paschall remembers several occasions when he’s been profiled by the police while walking home and one instance when a man ran from him, unprovoked. But getting his eye swollen shut after a fight—-that was a turning point. “Those are the types of situations I was in, and whenever I think about where I would be without poetry, I go back to that,” he says.

Still, Paschall’s not discouraged by his negative experiences.

“I’m a 17-year-old writer, and I still live in my mom’s house. I have to go home, but at the same time, that’s the place that made me. It created the foundation for everything that I am,” he says. “So many of my poems came from me walking down my street and me seeing different things. I love my community. That’s essentially my motherland…Yeah, there’s struggling and things happening, and it’s hard to see those things, but it’s more of a motivation to think I can help those things as opposed to leaving and never coming back.”

CiCi Felton, a former youth slam team member and a coach for the current team from Prince George’s County, echoes Paschall’s gratitude.

“Poetry has saved my life,” she says. “I was bullied in middle school and struggled with suicidal thoughts and lack of self-respect or self-love. Split This Rock has always been that type of support system, and the DC Youth Slam Team has always been my backbone. Even when I first got pregnant…being around them, I just felt protected.”

In February 2014, Felton gave birth to a son, whom she credits with her improved performance at school; she wants to make him proud. Felton smiles when she speaks of him and considers herself a voice for teen parents who may feel silenced. But keeping a happy face wasn’t always easy for her.

At the Grand Slam Finals, where Felton acted as a sacrificial poet—-the non-competing poet who goes first, allowing judges to calibrate their scores—-she opened up in a poem about the days when she first became a mother, recalling the night she cried on the shoulder of her son, who was just two days old at the time: “I was never supposed to make it. The fire in their eyes deemed me to burn in hell when they found out I conceived a love child,” her poem goes. “I was more sinner than saint. Shamed when they found out I birthed an illegitimate baby. You see there ain’t nothing worse than being a statistic—-than having someone turn up their nose at you when they don’t even know my story.”

Many of the youth slam team’s poets use the stage to confront judgment from their peers. By his own admission, Thomas Hill (above) wasn’t quite the good child growing up—-he says he was a rebel and a bit of an outcast, but always had a knack for prose. The combination has served the 18-year-old, a two-time Grand Slam champion, well. His talent and experiences growing up queer in Southeast D.C. before moving to Prince George’s County armed him with thick skin and something to say.

“I try a lot, in my poems, to humanize everyone…So you see this queer boy, and you hear his story about his mother who’s dealing with financial and emotional problems and who doesn’t have a father. And you look at yourself, and you see the only thing different about [him and you] is his homosexuality, and that makes you feel,” he says. “All of the excess becomes unnecessary. We have this connection, and suddenly the stereotypes and the stigmas, the masculinity and homosexuality all don’t matter anymore.”

Hill remembers a workshop he participated in at a Southeast high school when one of the students, a young, straight man, burst into tears and hugged him upon hearing one of Hill’s poems. Moments like that keep Hill invested in making poetry. “I feel like if I can show the humanity in everyone’s narratives and perspectives, then that in itself will help people understand each other better and grow together,” he says. “That’s the most beautiful thing to me.”

Unifying and understanding others works from the inside out. The team is comprised of students from the District, Maryland, and Virginia and diverse racial and economic backgrounds. The interaction creates dialogue between young people who may not have met otherwise. Jonathan B. Tucker, the youth programs coordinator for Split This Rock, says that intercommunication has proven to be pivotal.

“Their empathy increases an extraordinary amount because in this safe space,” he says. “Students are able to talk about trauma that they’ve went through…We talk about racism a lot, and the way D.C. is changing, their voices are even more needed…They have a space to talk openly, and hearing other people’s stories, I think, provides them with a sense of reality that they don’t always get in school.”

As the poets navigate these issues, they’re not censored in language nor content, but they’re encouraged to consider the most effective ways to use their words and to choose their battles. Tucker, who’s white, uses his own privilege to create avenues and access to raise the voices that otherwise may not have been heard.

“People judge people, and they see D.C. teenagers and they’re scared of them,” he says. “I’ll see how my students are treated, but after they perform…all of a sudden, they’re respected scholars that you would talk to like respected scholars. If I can get more people who look like me to sit and listen to people who look like my students, then perhaps that’s a good thing.”

See the DC Youth Slam Team at the Louder Than A Bomb DMV Teen Poetry Festival, April 18-May 2. Most festival events are free.

Top and middle photos by Jonathan B. Tucker; bottom photo by Saudah Ahmad