Jun 17, 2019

We Got Game

Leahnora's dancing tells a story
Leahnora's dancing tells a story

On Saturday, June 1, POPS the Club launched our sixth annual anthology, WE GOT GAME at  The Actors Gang Theater, where 40 POPS students representing eight Los Angeles POPS clubs read, sang, danced, displayed their artwork and played music. They performed before a sold-out and rapt audience, and as I watched the show, I kept wondering how I could somehow convey the magic of the day for those of you who weren't able to join us. 

After the show, as audience members moved out to the courtyard reception, the performers stayed behind to talk privately for a few moments. They had just bared their souls, and we all needed a breath. Johnny Rodriguez, POPS board member, performer, graduate and guide, gathered in a circle and asked, gently, "Does anyone have anything they need to say?"

Nods around the circle. People smiled. A few tears fell. "It was good," Mya said. And Bianca said, softly, "No, great." Then one of the guitarists leaned in and said, "I never got to go to a POPS club meeting. It wasn't at my school before I graduated, but I could have used this kind of community...Can someone tell me what the mission of POPS is?"  

That's the question I've become accustomed to answering, and for a split second I thought about speaking, telling this young man that  "Well, POPS stands for Pain of the Prison System, and that the mission is to heal that pain, and to amplify the voices of those who have loved ones inside..." But before I could say a word, hands flew into the air, and I remembered it is these young people's voices we all need to hear. And so I listened.

"It's a safe space," Alejandra said. Everyone nodded. 

"It's this place we can all be ourselves..." Leslie echoed her.

"We can say anything we want...," John B said.

"You know," Lakeia leaned in and said, "I always knew there were other kids around me who had parents in prison, but NO ONE ever talked about it. At POPS we can all TALK about it. It's okay to be who we are..."

"We're kind to each other," Caleb added.

"We make things better for each other," his twin brother Kylon broke in. 

"We find out we're not alone," said Amanda.

Nods and more nods. "I want to say something else," Caleb added. "Me and my brother don't have as much pain as other kids...I mean our uncle's in prison, and our cousin has a hard time, and that hurts us, but you know, what happens in POPS is that all that pain drops away, and when the pain drops away, we can let our creativity show..."

"Like the way Leahnora dances her story..." 

"And Virginia's poetry..."

"And Lucy's art..."

"Yeah," they said, "yeah, that's it," someone else chimed in, and I realized, again, for maybe the thousandth time, how truly wise and talented and tender-hearted these young people are, and when they are given a space to be nurtured and nourished, a space where judgment vanishes, their pain drops away, and they create.

Six Word Memoir
Six Word Memoir
Sebastian, John and Jose read
Sebastian, John and Jose read
In the audience...
In the audience...
Opening the show
Opening the show
Poetry in motion
Poetry in motion

Links:

Apr 29, 2019

We Got Game- publication and launch

We Got Game: The Sixth POPS Anthology
We Got Game: The Sixth POPS Anthology

As POPS the Club publishes our sixth anthology, we look forward (and scramble) to ready ourselves for the big book launch on June 1. WE GOT GAME has just been sent off to the printer, and we are preparing for the logistics of the launch. Over the years, our students have performed on stages and in bookstores across Los Angeles. The venues change--from Beyond Baroque's tiny theater deep in the heart of Venice when there was just one POPS club in one school, to a long, narrow room on the third floor of Barnes & Noble at The Grove where students from three schools were represented, to the storied Coconut Grove Theater in Koreatown, with students from all eight clubs in Los Angeles performing. This year we expect students, family members, and community members from across the city, and we are thrilled to be performing at the Actors Gang Theater in downtown Culver City where Artistic Director (+ actor/social activist) Tim Robbins has always kept incarceration central to the company’s artistic mission. 

Soon after the successful funding of this Global Giving micro-project, POPS the Club was recognized by the California Mental Health Services Authority / Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) –  and awarded a mini-grant to help support this event. In addition to our book launches being afternoons of entertainment, they are always characterized by the powerful healing that takes place inside our community. Isolation and stigma too often hobble those who have incarcerated loved ones, and this event helps dispel those corrosive sensations. Participating in (and even arriving at) an inviting and inclusive space allows people to understand: “I am not alone.” We can broadly outline the anticipated impact of our upcoming event with a story from last year's event. 

Allie Baiz’s father was in prison for more than half her life. Upon his release, the family continued to bear the wounds of that incarceration. In her POPS club, when Allie began to write about her complex feelings, she began to find mental equilibrium. When she decided to publish a deeply personal story in the 2018 anthology, In the Key of Love, her father resisted “airing their family’s secrets." Allie convinced her mother to sign the release form so that Allie could publish and perform at the launch. She invited her entire family to attend, and they all came--including her father. After she read onstage, the family cheered and celebrated her and open and loving conversation followed.  

This kind of healing is not reserved only for POPS students, nor is the pride that swells in their parents and family members. All audience members are moved by the power of the creative work produced onstage. Audiences have been exposed to the resilient poetry of a “dreamer” whose father faces deportation, the story of a daughter yearning to hold her mother’s hand, the tale of a boy determined to chart a new life through his melody, leaving the gang life behind. POPS also invites performers from such allied organizations as The Place4Grace, Inside Out Writers, Defy Venture, UCLA's Underground Scholars, and Get Lit, and POPS student artists will display their artwork in the courtyard.

Volunteers, staff, teachers, media, and audience members who previously knew little about the impact of incarceration on youth begin to hold a sacred space for every voice.

No one leaves this event unchanged.

Sisters celebrate their performance
Sisters celebrate their performance
Self-Portrait by Janna Rae Nieto
Self-Portrait by Janna Rae Nieto
Book signing, post performance
Book signing, post performance

Links:

Mar 20, 2019

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

California by Janna Rae Nieto
California by Janna Rae Nieto
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
Have you been changed by unarmed truth and unconditional love? I know I have.

Time and time again in POPS club meetings, I have seen unarmed truth and unconditional love transform lives. I saw it again one day this winter when I visited the newest NYC POPS club at Bronx Academy of Letters in New York City.

I was telling the 20 gathered students part of POPS's origin story when a stern-faced girl raised her hand and asked me, “So what was thrilling and adventurous about visiting prison?”

Her words stopped me. Thrilling and adventurous?

Those were words I had never felt visiting anyone I love in prison. I asked why she’d chosen them. She leaned forward and said, “’Cause when I visit my dad in prisonwhen I first see him and hug him, it's thrilling...it’s an adventure….”

Later the POPS teacher sponsors and volunteers at BAL told me this young woman had never before spoken about her dad. But in that moment, with her secret out of the bag, her face softened. We all grew quiet, respectful, more tender. The whole room held her. Unconditional love.

That kind of thing happens a lot in POPS meetings. 

It is that unarmed openness, the vulnerability and resilience, we see every year in POPS students' stories, poems and artwork as the new POPS anthology takes shape.

The works in the 2019 collection, WE GOT GAMEattest to the tender-heartedness and wisdom of these young people. POPS students artfully capture moments of perfect isolation on canvas as in the painting by junior at Venice High, Janna Rae Nieto, a self-taught artist. 

And their creativity directly inspires confidence as in this excerpt from a story by Kem Blue, a junior at Lawndale High: "People tend to underestimate me. Because I’m a woman. Because I can be too kind. Because I’m too young. Because I care. Because I’m Black. I confess, I like it. I get a bit high on the look of absolute shock in their eyes when I win, when I prove them wrong." 

We are thrilled that this extraordinary labor of love, our sixth anthology, will be available later this spring, and while we've been preparing the new publication, we've also been busy revamping POPS' social media, with a major redesign on Instagram, profiling POPS students and providing prompts from the POPS curriculum. Everyone is invited to join our conversation over there, especially on #WritingWednesdays. And to share in offering this world unarmed truth and unconditional love. 

It is thanks to people like you and your unconditional love that POPS continues to thrive and grow. 

Kem Blue, POPS the Club author
Kem Blue, POPS the Club author
POPS the Club students at Bronx Academy of Letters
POPS the Club students at Bronx Academy of Letters
Postcard by POPS student in Harrisburg, PA
Postcard by POPS student in Harrisburg, PA

Links:

 
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