Poetry in Action

By Chelbi Mims
November 1, 2011

The Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement was founded in 2006 by owner Greg Corbin as an outlet for young adults to build character and develop individual identity through spoken word poetry.

“A lot of kids, they go out and get involved in things that are dangerous or violent, which is why Corbin started this organization, to give kids a safe space to talk about their issues and express themselves without being judged,” Sharvon Urbannavage, 2003 Cabrini alumna and mentor for PYPM, said.

Though beginning simply as a spoken word poetry team to compete at Brave New Voice, one of the largest spoken word events in the world, it developed into a nonprofit organization for students, ages 13-18.

The organization began to expand into Saturday workshops, weekly poetry slam events, volunteer work and competitive countrywide spoken word festivals where poets performed self-written, self-performed works.

“In this competition there are 50 teams from all over the world that compete,” Urbannavage said.  “It’s like the Olympics of spoken word poetry.”

Young people of PYPM join the organization for a variety of reasons.  Some come because they like to write poetry and some hear about it through their teachers who also volunteer at PYPM.  Some come to open mic events that PYPM holds, while some come because their friends drag them to come or their parents make them.

In the end, people are there for many different reasons, but there is something for everyone to take from the experience.

“What we can do is make them better communicators,” Urbannavage said. “Just from my experience working in different workplaces, people don’t know how to communicate anymore.”

PYPM offers not only the opportunity for young people to learn the basics of writing and performing, but also gives students a chance to step out of their home environment.  It gives young adults the opportunity to travel to new places and open their eyes to new experiences that they would never receive if they stayed in Philadelphia.

“It’s good to know that there is an organization that is doing something good for the use,” Maria Clark, freshman criminal justice major and member of PYPM, said.

PYPM has traveled throughout the country, including San Francisco, the Poconos and New York. Clark’s first time outside of Philadelphia was traveling to New York when she attended regionals.

“It was overwhelming at first because there are teams from throughout the East Coast,” Clark said. “I really had to open my mind.”

“We are definitely giving kids from Philadelphia exposure to different environments, as well as giving them the opportunity to participate in something that helps them grow as people,” Urbannavage said.

PYPM has opened doors for many inner city teenagers, getting them scholarships, public appearances, viral publicity and features with spoken word professionals.

Josh Bennet, past member of PYPM, attended the University of Pennsylvania with a scholarship and performed at the White House for President Barack Obama.  He is now an artist for Ralph Lauren’s spoken word organization.

“It opens so many doors because you never realize how many people pay attention to spoken word,” Clark said.

Clark herself was paid to perform at a feature with her favorite spoken word poet, Brooke Young.

“The experience for other people was a real movement,” Clark said. “Kids from the city that go home to different situations, some people have never left Philadelphia.  That’s eye opening that they are getting off a track that they shouldn’t be on.”

According to Clark, you would never expect most of the team to attend college but, “they enforce us to keep up our grades, school involvement and dedication to the team.”

To attend workshops, slams and competition, youth need to have a steady GPA of 2.7 or higher, write an essay to be considered for any trip available and write their involvement and dedication to the team and the impact that PYPM has had on their lives. The mentors and Corbin have to recognize a change that PYPM has seen in personality, livelihood, and academics.

“It helps them become better students and we will tell them poetry doesn’t come before your homework,” Urbannavage said. “We have actually suspended practices because kids weren’t turning in assignments at the end of the year.”

Not only does PYPM offer an opportunity to see the country, but also provides a safe place for young people to come together and in some instances, escape their home lives.

The youth poets of PYPM are paired with a staff member who acts as a mentor, a writing and performing coach, and a life coach.  These partnerships give the students someone who can alleviate concern and provide advice.

Once a member of PYPM turns 20, they are able to become mentors. Transforming from a member to a mentor is a natural progression.

“Even in situations where they have a stressful home life, it’s about teaching them how to deal with that and how to get through it,” Urbannavage said.  “We have one parent who told us that it made her daughter a better member of their household.”

But not all parents understand why their child would want to get involved in spoken word poetry, which can cause tension within the organization.

“It’s a very, very delicate tightrope that we have to walk on,” Urbannavage said. “We cannot step in the way of the parent and at the end of the day, they are the parent.  But at the same time, we care a lot about their kids and we just want them to be happy.”

According to Urbannavage, it’s about creating a balance between authority and friend.  Though everyone is on a friendly basis, it’s about knowing when to flip the authoritarian switch and the young poets know when to be serious.

“We don’t want to create this environment that is the same as at home or how it is at school,” Urbannavage said.  “If they just wanted people yelling at them, what’s the point of coming on their Saturday mornings?”

Workshops are a vital key to PYPM’s spoken word competitions.  These workshops are held every Saturday and focus on writing skills, performance techniques, as well as life and leadership skills.  These workshops are taught by six volunteer staff members, who include teachers and performing artists.

The very first workshop involved four kids but has grown to over 40 students in recent months.

Although PYPM began as a spoken word poetry team, through dedication, a staff of volunteers and the young minds of Philadelphia, it has developed into an organization that gives the youth of this city an enormous opportunity to accomplish their dreams.

“You have to really, really work at what you want.  It doesn’t just happen; you just need to work at it,” Urbannavage said.

This past spring PYPM was awarded with a grant from the Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation to have their own space for the youth to practice, conduct workshops and prepare for slams and competitions. They will begin planning in 2012 for the new location. Once the space opens, they will be able to have workshops through the week, creating a vast amount of opportunities for the members of PYPM and also work in smaller groups to prepare for competition.

PYPM has taken trips to New York, the Poconos and San Francisco to perform.

Corrections: The following changes were made from the print edition:

  • The GPA requirement is 2.7, not 3.5. And that is only for students who compete for the Slam Team that goes to Brave New Voices or those who want to go to BNV as entourage.
  • Joshua Bennett performed at “A Night of Poetry & Music at the White House” for President & Mrs. Obama.
  • The grant is the Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation.
  • Maria Clark attended regionals in New York.

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Chelbi Mims

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