Jenari Mitchell. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Born and raised in Southeast Washington neighborhoods strained by poverty and street violence, Jenari Mitchell attended charter schools, navigated her way through multiple community youth programs, and was accepted to the well-regarded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a generous scholarship.

“I was very excited,” she recalls. “I just got basically a full ride to one of the most highly ranked institutions for technology in the country. There was no looking back. I saw myself only going up from here.” 

She started at RPI in the fall of 2017, but none of her achievements could protect her from the racism she would find at her dream university. And while her out-of-pocket payments for each semester were a little over $200, the actual cost was far more. “RPI took a lot out of me when I thought I was about to get everything that I wanted,” she says.

Even before she arrived at the upstate New York university, she began to suspect that for her, it would be a hostile environment. Shortly before her first fall semester, she had explored the Facebook pages for various school clubs and saw a blatantly racist comment on the page of a politically conservative unofficial campus group. It was an ugly attempt at a joke about segregating campus water fountains. Sickened by what she read, she brought it to the attention of the dean of students and several other school offices. (A spokesperson for RPI confirms Mitchell’s attendance, but does not respond to her allegations, writing in an email, “As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on specific students.”)

The water fountain comment was not an isolated incident, and Mitchell describes racism as a tangible part of her daily life on campus. “When I would sit down at dining tables, the White kids would get up and leave. They wouldn’t work with me when it was time to do group projects, so it was hard for me to find a group,” she says. “The Black and brown students use a different study room because of course White kids don’t allow us in their spaces.” In May 2018, a noose was found hanging on campus. In the room where she and her friends studied, a slender silver pencil appeared. Where its eraser should be, it was adorned with a KKK blood drop cross and a tiny metal sculpture depicting a lynching. Mitchell felt her sense of well being slipping away. 

News of several friends back home lost to gun violence was devastating. With her mental health fraying, she left RPI in April of 2019, relinquishing her scholarship money. 

“It was just a lot with that school,” she says. “I was the only girl with locs and the only visible lesbian on campus, so I became a target. I knew this was a big opportunity, because this top college just gave me $65,000 a year. There was a lot of pressure on me to stay, people saying that if other Black kids can do it, you can, too. But it just got to the point where it wasn’t serving me, and I felt like I was falling into a very dark hole.”

Mitchell returned to D.C., sleeping on relatives’ couches while trying to find her way through her disappointment and depression. “That’s when I started writing poetry,” she says. “I was rock bottom, bouncing from house to house, trying to figure out my life.”

She started attending open mics around the city, and quickly established herself as a riveting presence on the local poetry circuit, winning the Beltway Poetry Slam twice in 2019. During the pandemic, she recited her poems in videos shared on social media. By December of 2020, she was surprised to find how large her audience had become. Social media influencers ranging from Instagram’s @soyouwanttotalkabout to Facebook’s Mens Corner started sharing her poem “We Just Trying to Grow Up,” which has amassed hundreds of thousands of views. Now Mitchell, 21, has become one of the city’s best-known young poets, and her writing continues to attract attention, including an upcoming appearance on VH-1’s reality show Cartel Crew.

Mitchell posts some of her poetry on her Instagram account, @Jjenari, which features a highlight titled “Racism at RPI,” where she shared screenshots of racist comments and wrote about the racism she experienced at the school. “I was just treated like so much less than what I am,” she says. “While I was in D.C. and surrounded by Black people, I was speaking at events, getting internships. I’m like a poster child. But when I got to RPI, they treated me like I was nothing. Like I didn’t survive Southeast D.C. for 18 years, still performing on the same level as y’all White kids, and y’all gonna sit here and treat me like I don’t deserve to be here?” 

“We Just Trying to Grow Up” was the direct result of her experience there, she explains. It is also about the heavy toll that even occasional street violence takes on a community, particularly its children: 

 “You don’t get to be a child when you can’t wear your favorite color outside, because a gang claimed it and if they see you, you’re dead 
 Because the color of your clothes can get a 
 bullet put in your head. The color of your skin can get a 
 bullet put in your head. The block you were raised on can get a 
 bullet put in your head. Those nice shoes you got on can get a 
 bullet put in your head. The gender you fell in love with can get a 
 bullet put in your head.”

Later in the poem, she writes: 

 “You don’t get to be a child when there are more drugs in the hood than candy
 and you’re lighting up every day trying to control your anxiety. 
 Anxiety? 
 What the fuck is that? 
 Don’t you dare say that. 
 You want to get smacked? 
 You want these people to think you’re crazy? 
 You want these people to think I don’t take care of my baby?
 You don’t get to be a child 
 when you have seen more in your few years 
 than most will see in their entire lifetime 
 but you better not let anyone see you crying. 
 Ain’t shit wrong with you. 
 I been through way more than you, 
 so I don’t want to hear not another word from you. 
 OK, I’m sorry for being so weak. 
 I just wanted to talk about all of the things 
 that have been haunting me in my sleep.” 

In this and other work, including “My Mental Health Poem” from 2019, Mitchell addresses the reluctance to address the emotional distress that she sees around her. “We know that Black people don’t take mental health seriously and have a big stigma around mental illness,” she says. “I was never able to address these things or really talk about these things. I just had to bottle it up.”

In an email, E. Ethelbert Miller, the poet, teacher, and activist who currently hosts WPFW’s On the Margin, a radio show about literary culture, notes that Mitchell’s work explores uncomfortable subjects. “This poem speaks loudly about the growing problem of suicide among our young people,” he writes. “Coming of age while wrestling with sexual identity can be painful and difficult. No family support or access to professional help. To be Black and gay is another form of double consciousness we have avoided to discuss and accept within the Black community.”

Miller describes Mitchell’s work as interesting and important. “It’s sad that our young people still have to navigate their childhood around violence in order to survive. One detects a strong degree of nihilism in the work. The poem is not just about growing up but also the quality of life that surrounds us,” he writes. “If Jenari speaks for a generation as well as a city then we cannot escape the truth—the pandemic has taken the elderly but the violence has taken our young. One reads Jenari’s poem and notices the reference to weakness. So the question remains: How will our children find the strength to love?”

Mitchell’s admirers also include poet Kenneth Carroll III, 22, who served as the 2017 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. Carroll organizes poetry events around the city and first encountered Mitchell at a youth open mic at the downtown Busboys and Poets. “A lot of poets write about heavier topics, but think there’s an honesty in Jenari’s poetry that is uncommon,” he says. “Whatever room she performs in, she leaves a lasting impression on every person there … She is an amazing poet who is also a very hard working poet and a poet who really lives in her truth and lives in her art. I think as long as she continues to create and to do this, I think she will be very visible and people will want to listen to her.”

Mitchell is also shedding light on aspects of the city many of its residents either chose to ignore or simply don’t understand, Carroll says. “I think when Jenari goes to these places to perform, there are a lot of people who maybe for the first time are hearing something that she has been experiencing her whole life. Not to say that her whole life has been violent, but I think for some people, their idea of what is D.C. and what this city looks like is one free of … a lot of what Jenari talks about in her poetry.”

Like Carroll, teaching and performing artist Brandon Douglas was struck the first time he heard Mitchell perform. “She is a very raw, excellent storyteller, she’s able to put messages in her work that are tangible,” he says. “Her energy is different. Not only is she talented, she really wants to do good things with her work and call attention to different issues, the gun violence that she’s lost people to, the racism she was going through at college. She’s speaking about these things in her poetry, and she’s really out there doing the work.”

Mitchell grew up with seven siblings in Southeast D.C. and was named after her mother, Jeanette, and her brother’s favorite Italian sports car. She attended public charter schools and graduated from KIPP DC College Preparatory in Northeast. During middle school, she imagined herself becoming a lawyer, and deliberately sought out support from various community service programs. “I was lucky to have a bunch of mentors, people in different programs fighting for me my entire life. If I aged out of one program, I got into another program because I knew that I needed help,” she says. “I’ve always been surrounded by people fighting to improve our communities and get more resources for us.” 

When she was 11, she wrote a poem during a Facilitating Leadership in Youth workshop. “They asked us to free write and gave you a minute to write whatever is in your head. No stopping, no thinking, just write whatever comes out.” She titled that poem “Where is Safety” because her cousin David was one of many people around her who had been shot and killed. 

As an increasing number of her classmates were killed or shunted in and out of incarceration, her disillusionment in the criminal justice system led her to abandon her courthouse dreams. During her senior year, she earned an A in her AP Computer Science class, and she shifted her focus to tech. Even after leaving RPI, she did not not abandon the field, earning a software development certification from Year Up, a workforce development program. Now she earns her living as an IT portal administrator and hopes to open a web design business. Mitchell also works for Kid Power Inc., a children’s advocacy organization where she has participated as a student, camp counselor, assistant camp director, and coding teacher. In a recent interview, she seemed happiest when displaying a video of one of her students: an 8-year-old explaining how he programmed his own frogs and grasshoppers video game.  

“At RPI, I saw all the resources available to students wanting to pursue technology, and that encouraged me to bring whatever I had back to my community,” she says. “They say you should lift while you climb, so basically, I’m not just climbing my own ladder, I’m bringing my community with me.”

Carroll admires Mitchell’s efforts on behalf of area teens. “She’s an amazing person as well—super humble, kind, and a lot of the work she does is helping other young Black people from D.C. She very definitely gives back as much as has been given to her,” he says. 

Mitchell’s 2019 poem “Letter to a Phoenix” opens with a vivid description of her love—and fears—for the children she mentors: 

“I was teaching Black kids this summer
but I actually learned more than I taught 
watching my students fight the same battles I fought

I saw myself in all of you 
I saw the joy you’re still able to hold onto despite all of the obstacles put in place to destroy you
I saw your resilience 
as you overcame battles 
that should never be placed on children 
I saw your innocence 
in a world that labeled you a criminal 
before you even came into existence 
I saw the pain in your eyes 
even when you could look straight into mine 
and lie and say that you were fine”

Mitchell is an uneasy poet, despite—and also maybe because of—the rush of recognition she still can’t get used to. Late in 2019, she found she needed to step back from poetry readings, which felt like too much. “I’m not an entertainer, and I’m not a performer,” she says. “I don’t want to be a poet full time. This is really something I do for my mental health, and it’s really therapeutic for me.”

Still, there are rewards in performing live. “I can actually feel how my poem is affecting people,” she says. “It’s easy to internalize the message and all the love and energy that I get when I share my work.”

Despite her 5,500 Instagram followers, social media poetry posts lack that synergy, but there is the benefit of being able to reach people all around the globe. “Instagram allows me to share my poetry with the world,” she says. “I never got this much attention for my work, and it’s like people hitting me up from Texas, from the islands, love from Barbados, love from Nigeria.”

As a writer, she is inspired by Kendrick Lamar, and she often listens to instrumental music when she works. “That’s why my poems have a rhythm,” she says. When she needs to be happy, she listens to neo soul, which she describes as “my generation’s version of jazz.”

The process of composing “We Just Trying to Survive” was her way of reminding herself of everything that she is. “I need people to understand what I had to go through to get here. Not so they know how worthy I am, just so they respect my journey,” she continues. “Respect me. Respect how far I’ve come. Don’t ever treat me as nothing less, because if y’all had to survive the shit I had to go through, you wouldn’t be able to. With this poem, I’m saying, stop counting us out. I just want people to hear me, to hear us, because it’s not only my story that I’m telling.”