When a dozen young Black men and a dozen police officers gather in a church to write poetry together, there is trepidation on both sides.
“They’re all pulling me aside, like they think they’re the only one, saying, ‘I am not a poet. I cannot write anything profound,’” Lakayana Drury says.
Drury is the founder and executive director of Word is Bond, a Portland nonprofit organization that works to empower young Black men. The poetry workshop is part of a Word is Bond summertime series that brings together youth and law enforcement.
The students have an easier time of it, typically, because they are used to writing assignments in English class, Drury says. It’s tougher for the officers: “Poems and police don’t usually go together.”
By the end of the workshop, many of the writers are clamoring to share their work with the full group. Their confidence got another boost this spring when the poems they wrote last July at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church were published in Picture Me Thriving (Word is Bond, 112 pages, $20).
The poetry workshop is part of Word is Bond’s Rising Leaders six-week paid summer internship program for Black men ages 16-21. The Rising Leaders “ambassadors,” as they are called, do a ropes course, get fitted for suits, go camping, and lead walking tours of their neighborhoods.
At their final event with the officers, the youth meet them for a social event at Dawson Park in North Portland, where the officers attend in uniform for the first time during the program and the ambassadors wear their typical street clothes, rather than business attire.
Drury believes that poetry is a deeper, more effective way to get the group sharing their life stories than telling them to sit in a circle and get to know each other.
“What I think is special about Word is Bond is the emphasis on the youth voice,” says Picture Me Thriving writer Sgt. Leland Gilbert of the Hillsboro Police Department. “Particularly for young Black men, that is not a normal thing for them to be in charge of the conversations.”
In the 91 original poems in Picture Me Thriving, some themes emerge. In the section “Dear Other Side,” many of the police officers wrote letters to “the bad cops,” revealing tension that exists within law enforcement. (“I am not a different person when I put on my gun and badge, are you?…I am sad to admit that I can see why so many people do not trust the police right now,” writes Officer Kyle Hefley of the Portland Police Bureau.)
Meanwhile, the students express their fears of police interactions. Simon Abraha, who attends La Salle Catholic College Preparatory in Milwaukie, writes about “getting pressed by the police/For no reason, as if I committed a treason...I was so scared that I thought I was yelling but I was whispering/I got no freedom in this country/But I’m still thriving.”
Drury himself has enjoyed writing poetry for two years, and he is excited to make the art form accessible to the ambassadors.
“We’re breaking that myth of what poetry is,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be this old stuff from a thousand years ago. It can be a fun, fluid form.”
BUY: Picture Me Thriving is available at mywordisbond.org/shop/picture-me-thriving-poems.
Excerpts From Poems In Picture Me Thriving
“Not What You See” by Sgt. Leland Gilbert
Gilbert, 42, oversees the Hillsboro Police Department’s Youth Services Unit.
Picture me, but not what you see;
Not a color
Not my weight
Not my gender, eyes, or teeth
See my road;
The landmarks I’ve passed
The thoughts I’ve had
Promises I made, kept, and broken
Picture me, but not what you see;
Picture me, but the me from
Leland Gilbert: “The poem is aspirational. It’s all about overcoming the tendency to categorize people and make assumptions based on appearance. It’s just a really toxic problem for our society. I have this wish that two new people could just meet each other as people and get to know each other through conversation and experience. It’s Leland Gilbert’s fantasy world.”
“Home” by Nigusu Hamaya
Hamaya, 19, graduated from McDaniel High School and will study mechanical engineering at Oregon State University in the fall.
Where is my place?
Well, my place is not here
Here, where we pay rent and hear the
roar of I-205...
My home is far away
It crosses other worlds and it’s hard to
There are no streetlamps so it
But I like it because you can see
It has been a long time since I have
seen the Milky Way
I took it for granted and now light
pollution blinds the sky
My home is a place where you go
outside to have fun
The dry Earth is cracked and thirsty
Even if your feet are clean, by the end
of the day
You will have dirt all over them
It is hot
Nine months of the sun to be exact
Every day you become a shade darker
The politics make it hard but it’s still
Nigusu Hamaya: “I moved here from Ethiopia in 2012 when I was 8 years old. I barely knew any English. In Ethiopia, the way they talk about the U.S. is like a paradise. I was picturing a big house and tons of food in the fridge like in the cartoons and that we would be super rich. Instead, we were moving, apartment to apartment, and paying rent. That was the biggest difference.”