D.C. Youth Poetry Slam team travels to South Africa for cultural exchange


Students from the Washington area participate in a performance workshop at the National Museum of African Art before some of them travel to South Africa on a cultural exchange. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Should she take her red chiffon dress or her cheetah print sweater, or both?

D.C.’s Youth Grand Slam Poetry champion Asha Gardner had much on her mind as she packed for a cultural exchange trip with five other student poets from the Washington area to South Africa.

If she takes her black dress with the shiny gold collar, will the audience see her or the dress as she stands in front of them in schools in Tshwane and workshops in Soweto to perform her poetry?

There was one thing the 17-year-old senior at Woodrow Wilson Senior High school would not wonder about taking: her poems.

“I carry them in me,” Gardner said. “I memorize all my poems. I feel if they don’t resonate with me enough for me to memorize them, then they need not be carried with me. It’s easy to talk from a piece of paper, but it takes a lot to give a story from inside you.”

On Saturday, after several weeks of preparation, six student poets from the D.C. Youth Slam Team and three adult poetry teachers are scheduled to leave the District, bound for Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, then on to the city of Tshwane, where they plan to participate in a two-week cultural exchange focused on poetry and social justice. The students and teachers are scheduled to meet youth poets, activists and writers in South Africa who are engaged in the movement to build a better society.

The program, “Fly Language, K(no)w Boundaries,” is sponsored in part by the Sister Cities International partnership between the District and Tshwane, South Africa. Split This Rock, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization devoted to using poetry as a means of social change, is also a sponsor.

To qualify for the program, a committee had to determine “if the student’s writing was ‘fly’ enough, creative enough, awesome enough — we would fly them overseas, no boundaries,” said Jonathan B. Tucker, a poet, activist and the youth programs coordinator for Split This Rock, who will be one of the teachers traveling with the students.

The premise: “If our language is fly enough,” Tucker said, “then there are no boundaries on our opportunities. But first we must know the boundaries and name them. . . . We must study the history of struggles for justice and apply the lessons to our own lives.”

Sarah Browning, executive director of Split This Rock, said the trip was also inspired by her anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s and early ’90s, when she was moved by the role writers and artists played in the struggle in South Africa.

“They made the suffering — and the resistance — come alive for us Americans, most of whom knew next to nothing about the culture and history of the region before the movement took off here,” Browning said. “As the young D.C. poets are finding their voices, coming of age at a time of war and rapid social change here in the U.S., they are already learning tremendously from that recent history. And by meeting with their counterparts in the new South Africa — young poets and young adult artists working with the teen poets — they’ll learn new strategies for making change.”

On Friday, a day before their departure, the students gathered at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art to study art and photographs displayed in the exhibit “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.”

Carolyn “CiCi” Selton, 16, a rising junior at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, said she was looking forward to her trip. “In South Africa, I want to put myself in their shoes to see how things could be and the way things are — the things that aren’t in the history books,” Selton said.

Thomas Hill, 16, a rising junior at Magruder High School in Montgomery County, said he plans to perform poems infused with the themes of social justice and activism. “When you humanize yourself, you create a space for growth to happen,” Hill said. “If someone sees you as an equal human, they will be able to sympathize and empathize with your movement, even if they don’t agree with it. If someone sees you as human, it is easier to understand their cause.”

Mandlenkosi Dunn, 18, who just graduated from Bishop McNamara High School, will be returning to South Africa, a country his father left during the apartheid era. Dunn said some of his poetry deals with giving up something in life in order to get something.

As Dunn sat in the African art museum, he pondered which name he might use in South Africa. “On my birth certificate, my parents named me Mandla. But my father calls me Mandlenkosi, which means power of the lion.” He wondered whether he would be liked and accepted by family in South Africa. Will they understand why he is not fluent in Zulu? He wondered whether the poems he will pack will be understood.

“All the poems I’ve written are for an American audience,” Dunn said. “In South Africa, will my poems resonate? Can I talk about being black on the Metro? Will my poems be pure enough to resonate wherever I go?”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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