Hot Topics Viewed Through Art and Poetry

Oct 26, 2015

Jalesha Johnson puts her thoughts about the plight of refugees into a poem.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

A group of students in the Des Moines Public Schools are using art and poetry to address some of the nation’s most divisive social issues, such as racial divisions and immigrant rights. It’s in a course called Urban Leadership.

Sixteen-year old Jalesha Johnson has collected her thoughts on the plight of refugees in the form of a poem.

“This is us living the American dream.". she reads. "This is every migrant who never woke up, I wonder if the ships start sinking because they can’t hold all of that hope .”

Her classmates respond with finger snaps as the junior at East High reads, a sign they’re moved by her words and images. This is the review of Jalesha’s work from Jevion Crawford.

“Yeah, your wordplay metaphors, you know, were snowflake," he says to laughter from the class. "That was cold player. That was snowflake, you know. Yeah, it was pretty dolt, gnarly bro.”

High praise indeed for a young woman finding her poetic voice in a class that has become so popular in the Des Moines Public Schools, more than 200 students tried to get into it this year. The developers of Urban Leadership 101 are Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang. Rollins says the pair decided to approach current hot-button topics through poetry slams, graffiti art, hip-hop, mixed tapes, forms of communication embraced by today’s young people.

The developers of Urban Leadership 101, Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“We’re trying, I think, to lift up those things that we know they’re engaged with and influenced by and valuing, and we’re trying to give them the proper value within a public school system," Rollins says. "I think as a result of that you’re seeing youth incredibly engaged in the process.”

Rollins and Lang are starting the year with a unit on immigration. They’ll move on to such headline issues as black lives matter, LGBTQ students, women’s rights and poverty. Lang says they set out to provide a safe, supportive place for students to speak their minds.

“There will be times when a kid will forget a line in a poem and you’ll hear ten kids cry out at the same time, you’ve got this or find it or go back a line, she says”

The racial makeup of the Urban Leadership class is largely black and Hispanic. These are the students, Lang says, who don’t always feel their opinions matter. The poet Jalesha Johnson says the more she learns about world troubles, the stronger she becomes.

“I feel when you’re educated you gain power, and hopefully I’ll take that power and use it and speak for the voiceless,” she says

The lessons learned in “Urban Leadership” stayed with 18-year-old Jamie Malone after she graduated from Hoover High School. The visual artist is a freshman at Iowa State now, majoring in pre-medical illustration. She returned to the Des Moines classroom this month to offer positive feedback.

Jamie Malone next to her street-art piece she created for last year's Urban Leadership class.
Credit r

“The thing about the class is everyone is so passionate and kind-hearted," Malone says. "They want to listen to what you have to say and want to be able to tell you what they have to say, and it’s just a collective beauty. That’s the only way I can describe it, a collective beauty, I guess.”

Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang are an unlikely duo to prepare the next generation of urban leaders. They acknowledge they are the products of privileged, white, middle-class backgrounds. But they have found through art a connection with kids from all manner of economic circumstances. They’ve developed a catchphrase for the class. Lang says it came from her constant reminder to students. Lead with love.

“This is just a poem, but they are real people and we are just watching them drown,” Jalesha Johnson finishes her poem to applause and shouts of "words, words."