It’s Friday night in Lauderhill, and teenagers are streaming into a once-abandoned storefront to do something that would shock many of their peers – recite poetry they have written. Organizer Ray Dominguez has found the key to a door that educators and parents have not been able to unlock. Through the power of poetry, he has given today’s youth a voice.
“They tell me this is the first time someone has wanted to hear what they have to say,” says Dominguez. “There are a lot of angry kids out there, and poetry is so healing.”
“Not your mama’s poetry”
“This is not your mama’s poetry. It’s in-your-face, urban,” he says.
He gives the kids pencils, paper and three minutes to spill their hearts. The torrent of emotions is
as shocking as the range of topics they choose. They write about absent parents, regret, poverty, lack of respect, failure of our educational system, poor management of natural resources and other topics that few adults understand are on the minds of today’s youth.
Dominguez’ goal is to crack the shell kids use to shield themselves from pain and get them to open up. He has seen the process work miracles.
His first workshop at Okeechobee Juvenile Prison so captivated the young inmates that the wardens asked him to stay an extra day to work with a group that included a big kid with a bigger reputation for trouble.
“I said to them, ‘If God came to you and gave you three minutes to talk with your mom or dad because you would never see them again, what would you say?’” Dominguez recalls.
The kids wrote furiously before putting down their pencils. When he asked who wanted to go first, the big kid put up his hand. He stood up slowly and read a poem – a letter to his grandmother, who had raised him – and started to cry. Pretty soon everyone in the room was bawling.
“The social workers and psychologists had been trying for months to get him to open up. They were so grateful, because they felt the healing process could now begin. This is when I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says Dominguez.
The Write Side at the right time
When the coffee shop closed for the night, he invited everyone to his home, where they read poetry all night. His eight-year-old son, Michael, was fascinated and refused to go to bed.
Every Friday and Saturday night for months, Ray and Michael went to the coffee shop. Soon, Michael had memorized poems and was coaching the readers, causing his father to wonder if other kids could do the same.
He offered to teach poetry at his son’s after-school program, using composition books and pencils purchased with his own money. To start, his son read one of the poems he had written. The kids were mesmerized. “They all wanted to write like Michael,” says Dominguez.
That’s when he decided to start The Write Side Poets, Inc. In 2007, it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. While times are tough for a poetry teacher in today’s world, Dominguez has no regrets.
“Some people awaken and say, ‘Oh no, I have to go to work today.’ I awaken and think, ‘I can’t wait to hear what the next kid will say,’” he says with a grin.
Poetry Slam opens the door
One night when Dominguez was attending a poetry contest in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant, the owner asked if he would help assemble a team to compete in Brave New Voices, a national competition for kids to be held in San Francisco six weeks later. Intrigued and excited, Dominguez quickly agreed. They staged a competition at the restaurant, from which five kids were chosen for the team. One of the diners present that night was so impressed that she wrote a $1,500 check on the spot to help cover the airfare. More than 500 young poets from throughout the U.S. and England competed in the event: Dominguez’ team finished second.
One group that accepted his offer was VSA Arts of Florida, a nonprofit state-funded organization dedicated to opening the arts to children with disabilities. They asked Dominguez to teach poetry to children with autism – and they responded so favorably that he arranged for them to perform at Miami’s Carnival Center.
He then set his sights on the national Brave New Voices competition in San Jose, California, and staged the Louder than Life High School Poetry Slam to raise money for the trip. His team went to San Jose and finished 26th.
The national spotlight shines on Broward
Voices competition when he received a call from the organizers. They wanted to include Dominguez and his poets in a documentary being filmed for HBO. Dominguez arranged for the local contest to be held in Fort Lauderdale’s beautiful new African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, an ideal backdrop for television. When word spread that HBO would be filming, they sold 400 tickets to the event.
HBO followed Dominguez’ team to the national competition in Washington, D.C., where they finished sixth among 45 teams. The week held a myriad of other opportunities, as well. The kids read poetry at the U.S. Capitol, attended a poetry workshop at George Washington University and recited their poems into a loudspeaker near the White House to let the President know what they thought about education in this country. At a Global Warming Poetry Slam at the Kennedy Center, they were thrilled to meet Robert Redford.
The Brave New Voices special will air on HBO in early 2009.
The voices are getting louder
He smiles when he recounts how poetry can turn around lives. He cites the example of Shamika Thomas, who was a mediocre student in a Miami high school when she made the 2006 team. She later was awarded a full scholarship to Spellman College, where she maintains a 4.0 average and has studied in Dubai and South Africa. Two Write Side graduates from Tampa and Miami are attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison on full scholarship.
Dominguez’ desire to give kids their voice is endless. While he continues to prepare teams for competition and hold after-school writing workshops, he offers a myriad of unique workshop on topics that include how to write a college scholarship application essay or a newsletter for a school or church, become a community activist or stage a performance event.
One of his most popular workshop topics is rap versus poetry. “I tell them that you have to be a poet first to do rap. I show them that everything Tupac said, Shakespeare already said. Suddenly, they can relate to Shakespeare,” he says.
It takes “The Village” to raise a child
his lap. Earlier this year he spotted a vacant laundromat for rent and inquired about its availability. The owner wouldn’t lease it to him, but officials from the City of Lauderhill offered a larger, more open space in the same shopping center.
“It was the perfect place for young artists. We call it The Village, and we hope it will be the first of several locations where kids can come to tap into their creative side,” he explains.
Jubilee Dance Theater shares “The Village” with Write Side Poets. Eventually, they hope to offer film classes and have volunteers to help with reading and writing.
As for Dominguez, he’s always looking for ways to fund his passion. Fortunately, his wife is understanding – and employed. He survives on a shoestring budget in order to help kids find the words that unlock their hearts.
“I’m humbled, thankful, amazed. Where else can kids have this kind of opportunity?” he asks.